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MoMA to recall the African-American exodus from the Jim Crow South

Howard Halle

The Museum of Modern Art recently announced an upcoming exhibition titled “One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s ‘Migration Series’ and Other Visions of the Great Movement North.” The show—which centers around a 60-panel series of paintings by Jacob Lawrence—deals with a chapter of the nation’s history unfamiliar to a lot of people, especially whites: The story of five to six million African Americans fleeing the Jim Crow South for the cities of the Northeast, the Midwest and the West Coast.

This extraordinary shift occurred between 1910 and 1970, reaching a peak in the years between World Wars I and II. African Americans left their homes to escape poverty, segregation, harassment, an unfair legal system and the violence routinely perpetrated upon them by their white neighbors (including but not limited to lynching).

 Urban centers above the Mason-Dixon line, meanwhile, beckoned with jobs, education and a less onerous form of racism in which the chances of being summarily executed were lessened. And it changed American culture: The big city transformed The Blues into Rhythm and Blues, eventually birthing Rock and Roll. During Prohibition, Northern whites mingled with African-Americans in speakeasies, and were exposed to jazz.

Lawrence was among the first to grasp the import of the Great Migration, which he set out to immortalize in the paintings MoMA will feature. (In fact, Lawrence’s overall title—“The Migration Series”—lent its name to the historical event.) Besides Lawrence, MoMA will include other artists such as Charles White, Romare Bearden and Gordon Parks, as well as posters and books. It’s all part of a fascinating look not just at race, but at how people chase the American Dream, even with the odds against them.


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