One-Way Ticket: The Jacob Lawrence Migration Series at MoMA

Some six million African-Americans migrated from the rural South to urban centers in the North and Northeast between 1915 and 1970. [1] There were several reasons people left their homes and traveled North. They searched for job opportunities, but perhaps most importantly, they fled the violence and oppression of the Jim Crow South. Harlem painter, Jacob Lawrence, was one of the most well known artists to be inspired by the mass movement of people and ideas. In April of 2015, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City brought together Lawrence’s Migration Series for the first time in over 20 years. Previously, the series of 60 paintings had been split between MoMA and The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.

The exhibition, One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North, highlighted the 60 small tempura paintings created by the 23 year-old, Lawrence in 1941. These works display 1930s and 1940s African-American and Caribbean-American experiences as they made their way to new communities throughout the North. The paintings depict the movement of people through crowded railway stations, African-Americans in the labor force, and the memories of past violence and injustices. While creating the paintings, Lawrence also wrote small captions to accompany each work. [2]

Jacob Lawrence was born in 1917 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. His parents had been a part of the Great Migration moving North from Virginia and South Carolina. After moving to Harlem in 1930, a young Lawrence began to study art under Charles Alston at Utopia Children’s House. Here, he drew inspiration from the Harlem community and African-American leaders such as Charles Seifert. Seifert pushed Lawrence toward portraying historical aspects of the African-American experience. Lawrence stated that Seifert tried, “to get black artists and young people such as myself … to select as our subject matter black history.” Lawrence did just that. Lawrence went on to paint series featuring Frederick Douglass and paintings that examined the history of conflict in America called, Struggle: From the History of the American People. [3]

Jacob Lawrence, 1941. Photograph by Kenneth F. Space


Although the physical space has been deconstructed, the One-Way Ticket exhibition is still available to view online. The Migration Series website features all 60 paintings as well as outstanding supplemental material for online guests. Visitors can download a walking tour of Harlem that is narrated by local community leaders. A playlist is also available to sample. This list features musical artists who were inspired by similar ideas to Jacob Lawrence’s works; notably, Billie Holiday’s powerfully haunting, anti-lynching song, Strange Frui.[4] Work by other artists and writers, such as Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, are also included online. Through their writing, they too, used their creativity to document the horrendous racial violence that prompted those to migrate north.

The website features the original text from 1941 as well as the text from last time the painting were displayed together in 1993. As the visitor makes their way through the site, each panel page offers sections such as history, culture, and perspective. The history and culture sections contain further reading and material relating to that particular painting, these provide helpful context to readers. The materials could range from archival records, current artists, music, and photographs. The perspective section features a video or sound clip from artists, historians, and writers of today that have been inspired by Lawrence’s work. Videos could show an author reading a short story or a historian discussing the social context of Harlem in the 1940s with exhibition curator, Leah Dickerman.

One of the most exciting events surrounding the One-Way Ticket exhibition was the, Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and the Legacy of Jim Crow: The Long History of the Artist’s Concerns. This evening brought a community together to discuss Lawrence’s work within a current social context relating to contemporary racial injustices. The distinguished speakers included Sherrilyn Ifill, President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense and Education Fund, and Cornell Brooks, President of the NAACP. A video recording of the event can be found on the exhibition website.

The Jacob Lawrence One-Way Ticket exhibition is a wonderful and useful example of a museum looking to past inspiration to better connect communities with current issues.


[1]Lepore, Jill.“The Uprooted: Chronicling the Great Migration” New Yorker, accessed February 17, 2016,

[2] “One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North,” Museum of Modern Art, accessed February 12, 2016,


Feature Image: Harlem Street Scene. (Accessed February 17, 2016).

Lawrence Portrait – Jacob Lawrence, 1941. Photography by Kenneth F. Space. (Accessed February 17, 2016).

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