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Moments in History: Jacob Lawrence

Did you know that Jacob Lawrence was one of the most notable African-American painters of the 20th-century? The Harlem Renaissance artist was uniquely known for his portrayal of African-American life. Lawrence’s 60-panel Migration Series, which was painted on cardboard, gained him national recognition when he was just 23-years-old.


Jacob Lawrence

On September 7, 1917, Lawrence was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He was thirteen when his father, mother, sister, and brother moved to New York City. In an attempt to keep him busy, his mother enrolled him in classes at an arts and crafts settlement house in Harlem. The young Lawrence often drew patterns with crayons. Early on, he copied patterns of his mother’s carpets; leading one of his art teachers to note Lawrence’s great potential.

Dropping out of school at sixteen, Lawrence went to work in a laundry and a printing plant. He continued honing his craft by attending classes at the Harlem Art Workshop. His classes were taught by the renowned African-American artist Charles Alston, who eventually urged him to attend the Harlem Community Art Center, led by the sculptor Augusta Savage. While at the centers, Lawrence studied African art, Aaron Douglas’s paintings, and African American history. Savage played a key role in securing Lawrence a scholarship to the American Artists School and a paid position with the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a program founded by the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. While at the WPA, Lawrence studied and worked with Alston and Henry Bannarn–both notable Harlem Renaissance artists.

Lawrence began painting in a series format in the late 1930s, completing 41 paintings on the life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the revolutionary who established the Haitian Republic. Other series followed on the lives of the abolitionists Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and John Brown. The Migration of the Negro, one of his best known series, was completed in 1941. The series depicted the Great Migration of African-Americans from the rural South to the urban North. A part of Migration of the Negro was featured in a 1941 issue of Fortune Magazine.

Also in 1941, Lawrence married painter Gwendolyn Knight, also a student of Savage’s, on July 24th. They were married until his death. In October 1943, he enlisted in the United States Coast Guard and served with the first racially integrated crew on the USCGC Sea Cloud, under Carlton Skinner. During his service, he continued to paint and sketch.

After living in New York for decades, Lawrence and Knight moved to the Seattle in 1970, where he had been invited to be an art professor at the University of Washington.

Jacob Lawrence taught at several universities throughout his life but he eventually returned to NYC. He continued to paint until a few weeks before his death in June 2000 at the age of eighty-two. His last commissioned public work, the mosaic mural New York in Transit, was installed in October 2001 in the Times Square subway station.

Some of Lawrence’s recognitions include, the NAACP Spingarn Medal (1970), the Algur H. Meadows Award for Excellence (1996), The Washington Medal of Merit (1998), and the U.S. National Medal of Arts in 1990.



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