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3 / History and Memory

The Railroad Stations Were at Times So Over-Packed with People Leaving that Special Guards Had to Be Called in to Keep Order from the Migration Series
The Railroad Stations Were at Times So Over-Packed with People Leaving that Special Guards Had to Be Called in to Keep Order from the Migration Series
Artist / Origin Jacob Lawrence (American, 1917–2000)
Region: North America
Date 1940–1941
Material Tempera on gesso on composition board
Medium: Painting
Dimensions H: 12 in. (30.5 cm.), W: 18 in. (45.7 cm.)
Location The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
Credit © 2009 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Digital Photo © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY

expert perspective

Lowery Stokes SimsCurator, Museum of Arts and Design

The Railroad Stations Were at Times So Over-Packed with People Leaving that Special Guards Had to Be Called in to Keep Order from the Migration Series

» Jacob Lawrence (American, 1917–2000)

expert perspective

Lowery Stokes Sims Lowery Stokes Sims Curator, Museum of Arts and Design

I think despite the fact that Jacob Lawrence spent the last thirty or forty years of his life in Seattle, people always think of him as the quintessential New York artist, and specifically, the quintessential Harlem artist because that’s where he was nurtured. For the average person who is African American living in an urban center like Harlem, there is this heightened sense of looking back at history, at a particular moment.

Jacob Lawrence decided on a series because there was a way he wanted to illustrate history, but maybe one composition wouldn’t do it. And the series allowed him to mine the emotional and social and political impact of the stories as they unfolded at different moments. In the context of even figurative art in the 1940s it was unusual to have this combination of text with captions. But I think that if we think of the purpose of making the art, of really educating, not only say, younger African Americans who might not know this story as well, but also a wider audience, you almost have to have the captions to sort of have them understand the fullness of the drama.

The series starts with African Americans at the train station. And it talks about the fact that the war had created a shortage of jobs, and so there was this whole kind of interest in moving North for opportunities where industry was sort of coming. The series explains through all these different episodes all the different obstacles and hopes and aspirations for people, and it sort of sometimes jumps back and forth between what’s happening in the South and what’s happening in the North. So you really get a very full sense of the history of this event.” 

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