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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

Additional Resources

Bjelajac, David. American Art: A Cultural History. London: Laurence King Publishing, 2000.

Hills, Patricia. Jacob Lawrence: Moving Forward. Forward by David Driskell. New York: DC Moore Gallery, 2008.

Lorensen, Jutta. “Between Image and Word, Color and Time: Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series.” African American Review 40.3 (September 2006): 571–603.

Nesbett, Peter T. and Michelle Dubois, eds. Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001.

Painter, Nell Irvin. Creating Black Americans: African-American History and Its Meanings, 1619 to the Present. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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)

The subject of Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series, of which this painting is a part, is the mass relocation of African Americans from the rural South to northern cities in the first decades of the twentieth century.

Lawrence noted that he thought of the series as a kind of portrait of those who had made the journey and those who were impacted by it. In addition to studies from life, the work involved extensive research. In preparation for the project, Lawrence spent months poring over migration-era documents at the Schomburg Collection in Harlem, which remains a major center for the study of African American culture and history today.

The Migration Series, which consists of sixty panels, each with a corresponding caption, was created in the spirit of the West African storyteller, who preserved and passed down knowledge of past events, both legendary and factual. Lawrence envisioned his images as vehicles through which future generations would learn about the men, women, and children whose lives were forever changed during the “Great Migration.” During a period when the written history of black Americans was all but non-existent, Lawrence’s series offered a unique picture of African American life told from the perspective of someone who had experienced it first hand. Lawrence’s own parents had been among those who came North between 1916 and 1919. At the same time, Lawrence’s series, with its bold compositions and simplified forms, tells a timeless story of struggle and the search for equality that speaks to the shared history of all Americans.

This image is number 12 from the Migration Series, and includes the caption “The Railroad Stations Were at Times So Over-Packed with People Leaving that Special Guards Had to Be Called in to Keep Order.” It repeats a motif of crowds and movement that is found throughout the series’ panels. Here, a railroad station is filled with African American individuals, couples, and families waiting on line at ticket windows. Their stylized, faceless images form an anonymous mass of people, contrasting with the more detailed depictions of two Caucasian guards who stand menacingly in the foreground of the painting.

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