Art: The Migration Series By Jacob Lawrence

Jacob lawrence

Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series (1940–41) is a sequence of 60 paintings that depicts the mass movement of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North between World War I and World War II—a development that had received little previous public attention.

1. During the World War there was a great migration North by Southern Negroes.

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2. The World War had caused a great shortage in Northern industry and also citizens of foreign countries were returning home.

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3. In every town Negroes were leaving by the hundreds to go North and enter into Northern industry.

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4. The Negro was the largest source of labor to be found after all others had been exhausted.

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5. The Negroes were given free passage on the railroads which was paid back by Northern industry. It was an agreement that the people brought North on these railroads were to pay back their passage after they had received jobs.

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6. The trains were packed continually with migrants.

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7. The Negro, who had been part of the soil for many years, was now going into and living a new life in the urban centers.

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8. They did not always leave because they were promised work in the North. Many of them left because of Southern conditions, one of them being great floods that ruined the crops, and therefore they were unable to make a living where they were.

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9. Another great ravager of the crops was the boll weevil.

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10. They were very poor.

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11. In many places, because of the war, food had doubled in price.

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12. The railroad stations were at times so over-packed with people leaving that special guards had to be called in to keep order.

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13. Due to the South’s losing so much of its labor, the crops were left to dry and spoil.

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14. Among the social conditions which was partly the cause of the migration was the injustice done to the Negroes in the courts.

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15. Another cause was lynching. It was found that where there had been a lynching, the people who were reluctant to leave at first left immediately after this.

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16. Although the Negro was used to lynching, he found this an opportune time for him to leave where one had occurred.

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17. The migration was spurred on by the treatment of the tenant farmers by the planter.

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18. The migration gained in momentum.

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19. There had always been discrimination.

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20. In many of the communities the Negro press was read continually because of its attitude and its encouragement of the movement.

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21. Families arrived at the station very early in order not to miss their train North.

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22. Another of the social causes of the migrants’ leaving was that at times they did not feel safe, or it was not the best thing to be found on the streets late at night. They were arrested on the slightest provocation.

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23. And the migration spread.

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24. Child labor and a lack of education was one of the other reasons for people wishing to leave their homes.

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25. After a while some communities were left almost bare.

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26. And people all over the South began to discuss this great movement.

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27. Many men stayed behind until they could bring their families North.

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28. The labor agent who had been sent South by Northern industry was a very familiar person in the Negro counties.

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29. The labor agent also recruited laborers to break strikes which were occurring in the North.

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30. In every home people who had not gone North met and tried to decide if they should go North or not.

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31. After arriving North the Negroes had better housing conditions.

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32. The railroad stations in the South were crowded with people leaving for the North.

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33. People who had not yet come North received letters from their relatives telling them of the better conditions that existed in the North.

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34. The Negro press was also influential in urging the people to leave the South.

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35. They left the South in large numbers and they arrived in the North in large numbers.

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36. They arrived in great numbers into Chicago, the gateway of the West.

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37. The Negroes that had been brought North worked in large numbers in one of the principal industries, which was steel.

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38. They also worked in large numbers on the railroad.

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39. Luggage crowded the railroad platforms.

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40. The migrants arrived in great numbers.

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41. The South that was interested in keeping cheap labor was making it very difficult for labor agents recruiting Southern labor for Northern firms. In many instances, they were put in jail and were forced to operate incognito.

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42. They also made it very difficult for migrants leaving the South. They often went to railroad stations and arrested the Negroes wholesale, which in turn made them miss their trains.

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43. In a few sections of the South the leaders of both groups met and attempted to make conditions better for the Negro so that he would remain in the South.

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44. Living conditions were better in the North.

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45. They arrived in Pittsburgh, one of the great industrial centers of the North, in large numbers.

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46. Industries attempted to board their labor in quarters that were oftentimes very unhealthy. Labor camps were numerous.

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47. As well as finding better conditions in the North, the migrants found very poor housing conditions in the North. They were forced into overcrowded and dilapidated tenement houses.

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48. Housing for the Negroes was a very difficult problem.

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49. They also found discrimination in the North although it was much different from that which they had known in the South.

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50. Race riots were very numerous all over the North because of the antagonism that was caused between the Negro and white workers. Many of these riots occurred because the Negro was used as a strike breaker in many of the Northern industries.

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51. In many cities in the North where the Negroes had been overcrowded in their own living quarters they attempted to spread out. This resulted in many of the race riots and the bombing of Negro homes.

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52. One of the largest race riots occurred in East St. Louis.

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53. The Negroes who had been North for quite some time met their fellowmen with disgust and aloofness.

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54. One of the main forms of social and recreational activities in which the migrants indulged occurred in the church.

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55. The Negro being suddenly moved out of doors and cramped into urban life, contracted a great deal of tuberculosis. Because of this the death rate was very high.

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56. Among one of the last groups to leave the South was the Negro professional who was forced to follow his clientele to make a living.

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57. The female worker was also one of the last groups to leave the South.

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58. In the North the Negro had better educational facilities.

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59. In the North the Negro had freedom to vote.

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60. And the migrants kept coming.

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Credits: Analepsis Phillips Collection

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1 Comment

  • Reply January 26, 2015

    Louise Shields

    What a wonderful illustration of Mr. Lawrence’s artwork depicting the Migration of Negroes from the South to the booming North. The pictures came to life as I strolled down reading page after page. As a self-taught collage artist, Mr. Lawrence artwork continues to inspire me. In my opinion, Mr. Lawrence had the creative ability to capture the experiences of women, men, children and families and bring their experiences to life on canvas.

    Louise S.

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