Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: A Place of Wholeness: A Program for Youth Exploring Their Own Unitarian Universalist Faith Journeys

Leader Resource 4: Jacob Lawrence and the Great Migration

The Life of Jacob Lawrence

Jacob Lawrence was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1917. His parents had recently moved to the North as part of what is known as the Great Migration. After moving often for the first few years of his life, Lawrence and his mother ended up in Harlem, New York. His mother enrolled him in the Utopian Children's Center run by artist and educator Charles Alston. This was where Lawrence was first exposed to art and painting. As a teenager, he attended artist workshops after school and frequently visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Lawrence became a key participant in the Harlem Renaissance, developing a modernist style of painting. His paintings, often narratives, explored topics over a series of panels. Early in his career, he would paint narrative panels about prominent African Americans such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Toussaint L'Ouverture.

In 1940, he received a grant to paint The Migration Series. The Migration Series is a collection of 60 panels that tells the story of the millions of African Americans who moved from the southern United States to northern cities. It is considered by many critics to be his greatest artistic achievement. The image used in this workshop comes from this series and is called Panel no. 3. The caption for this panel is "From every southern town migrants left by the hundreds to travel north."

The Great Migration

The Great Migration is a complicated story. The art historian Christopher Capozzola, writing about Jacob Lawrence's depiction of the Great Migration, states "it presents a complex account of social history that accounts for the individual agency of African-American migrants as well as the forbidding social, economic and ideological structures that shaped the world in which they acted."

The facts are that between 1910 and 1970 about six and a half million African Americans migrated from the states that made up the Old Confederacy to northern urban centers like Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and New York. They were fleeing Jim Crow laws that conspired to treat African Americans as second-class citizens and contributed to brutal oppression. (Between 1880 and 1951 over 3,000 African Americans died by lynching.) They were heading toward the opportunity of more jobs and a better way of life that they read about in northern-based African American newspapers like the Chicago Defender.

However, at its core, the story of the Great Migration is a story of a people taking charge of their own future. In many ways, it is a 20th century version of the biblical Exodus story. A people facing brutal oppression rise up and resist that oppression by taking a journey to a new reality for themselves and their descendants.

The Migration Series Panel no. 3 as metaphor

So why use Jacob Lawrence's The Migration Series Panel no. 3 in a Unitarian Universalist workshop that is focused on spiritual journey? The first reason is the painting itself puts forward the ideas of journeying and change. In the foreground is a group of people, loaded with luggage, obviously heading somewhere. The notion of migration is reinforced by the flock of birds in the background also migrating. Migration is both an individual journey of transforming one's own reality, and a communal act of resistance changing the reality of a whole people.

A spiritual journey is a type of migration. We start at one spiritual reality. We are shaken out of that reality and start a journey to a new reality. Along the path, there is joy and pain, celebration and fear. Like the migrant, a person on a spiritual journey is often in community while they journey to a new reality, a new way of being. In both cases, there is the open question of whether the trip is really over, or if there is another journey ahead.

The second reason for using Lawrence's work and the story of the Great Migration is to introduce Unitarian Universalists to an important American artist and an important piece of America is multicultural history that is not often told.