The Migration of the Negro, Panel # 59: In the North they had the freedom to vote
Artist: Jacob Lawrence
Medium: Casein tempera on hardboard
Citation: Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), The Migration of the Negro, Panel # 59: In the North they had the freedom to vote., 1940-1941. Casein tempera on hardboard, 18 x 12 in. (45.72 x 30.48 cm.). Acquired 1942. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D. C. © 2010 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Rights Holder: Acquired 1942. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D. C. © 2010 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Engage! Theme: Participation
The Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted African Americans the right to vote in 1870. Yet, in practice, many African Americans in the South were stopped from voting by prohibitive poll taxes, literacy tests, and violence.
The Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to northern urban centers in the early twentieth century was motivated by opportunities for political participation and economic advancement. Voting was one of the freedoms sought by the many African Americans who moved to the North.
In this the second-to-last panel in a series about the Great Migration by artist Jacob Lawrence, six African Americans line up to vote in front of a booth. The somber hues of the polling place contrast with a stern white policemen who may be present to maintain order or to intimidate. The tilted floor creates a perspective that puts the viewer next in line to vote—encouraging our vicarious participation in the electoral process.
Lawrence’s Great Migration series details the hardships and injustices African Americans faced in the South through images of barren cotton fields and a noose in a tree that evokes lynching. He shows African Americans boarding trains and arriving in industrial centers in the north—Chicago, New York, Detroit, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh—in search of employment and opportunity. In the North, they find jobs in steel and other industries, homes in high-rise apartments, and access to education. Lawrence also describes the downsides of urban life, depicting overcrowding and segregation.
The Great Migration series is comprised of sixty small boards painted with tempera colors straight from the jar. Lawrence worked with one hue at a time on all sixty panels to create a unified look and seamless narrative. He used bold shapes and solid color forms.
An African American, Lawrence was born in New Jersey and settled in Harlem at age 13. He grew up during the Harlem Renaissance, a flowering of African American culture centered in New York, and he directly witnessed the influx of blacks from the South. He collected family anecdotes and researched historical events in the library to piece together this epic story of blacks participating in civic and urban life.
What do you think the experience of voting was like for the people lined up in this image? Why do they put up with the fearful and intimidating tone of the policeman?
This is one of sixty images in a series about the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North in the first half of the twentieth century. All the images in the series are quite small and, in this image, we look down on the scene from above and cannot see the faces of the people in line.
Why do you think the artist gave us this particular perspective? What do you think he is saying about the struggle to win African Americans the right to vote?
Further Discussion Questions and Activity Ideas:
The struggle to win the vote was just one of many that African Americans faced during the civil rights era. All the things that they (and their supporters) fought for concerned the ability to freely participate in American society. Think about the ways you are able to, or are restricted from, freely participating in society. If not a group to which you belong, do you know of a group or community whose rights are limited? Draft a letter to your local alderman, congressman, or any government official about the issue and what you would like to see done about it. By writing the letter, you are exercising an American right, like voting, that may feel insignificant on its own but is often most powerful when engaged in by many people.
Refer to the discussion questions and activity ideas for George Caleb Bingham’s The County Election for additional ideas.
Picturing America (brief description, teacher resources).
Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence. Edited with an introduction by Peter T. Nesbett and Michelle DuBois. (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2000).
Elizabeth Hutton Turner, ed. Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series. Introduction by Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Urbana, Va.: Rappahanock Press in association with The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., 1993).
National Voting Rights Act of 1965: The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship, exhibition by the Library of Congress.