Art Through Time: A Global View
History and Memory Art: 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 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.
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.”
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.