Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series tells the story of the Great Migration, or mass movement of over one million African Americans from the rural South to the urban North in the early decades of the 20th century, a period that forever altered the social, economic, political, and cultural fabric of American society.
The first Great Migration, stimulated by World War I’s extraordinary demand for manufacturing labor, drove African Americans in record numbers to major industrial centers of the North, particularly Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and New York City. As Lawrence shows us in the first panel of The Migration Series, Chicago, New York, and St. Louis were among the major gateways north. African American migrants also followed the Southern Pacific Railroad west, to cities in California (Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco, and San Diego) and the Pacific Northwest (Portland and Seattle).
In the final panel of The Migration Series, Lawrence leaves us with this message: “And the migrants kept coming.” Completing his series in 1941 at the start of the second Great Migration, Lawrence understood that the ongoing impact of the migration would continue to reverberate for decades to come. Indeed, just prior to his death in 2000, he witnessed the extraordinary reversal of the Great Migration with the accelerated return of African Americans to the South. Lawrence’s panels provide a moving portrait of the broader human quest for freedom, equality, and opportunity that fuels ongoing patterns of migration around the world today.
Read letters penned by migrants-along with photographs of their journey and everyday life-that reveal the conditions of the time.
Explore the animated map showing patterns of African American migration from the South to the North between 1920 and 1970 and the reverse migration from the North to the South between 1980 and 2010.
Jacob Lawrence's Harlem
Discover the vibrant culture, art, and music of Harlem during the 1920s and 1930s and hear scholars discuss the enduring meaning of The Migration Series.