From the Vault: Jacob Lawrence, Black history and the importance of voting

Feb 20, 2022

by Aaron Wilder, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at the Roswell Museum

© Roswell Daily Record


"The 1920s / The Migrants Cast Their Ballot," by Jacob Lawrence, 1974. Color serigraph on paper — gift of the Lorillard-Kent Corporation.

Greetings from the Roswell Museum. I am excited to resume the “From the Vault” monthly column that was put on hold last summer. My curatorial philosophy is centered around the discursive power of art, particularly prioritizing artistic practices that engage with others not only about art, but also about the world and how we perceive it, individually and socially. I look forward to engaging with you through this monthly column as one of many ways we can connect about the collection of the Roswell Museum, your museum.


I am originally from Phoenix, Arizona, and moved to Roswell last year from Chicago, Illinois, where I was working at the Smart Museum of Art. In addition to my curatorial practice, I am also an artist. I was one of the 2021 recipients of the High Concept Labs Artist Residency Program and am an artist member — as well as treasurer and board member — of Amos Eno Gallery in Brooklyn, New York. I previously lived in San Francisco, California, where I completed my Master in Fine Arts at the San Francisco Art Institute. My previous roles include curator and interim director of the Natalie and James Thompson Art Gallery at San José State University, curatorial fellow at Aggregate Space Gallery, and adjunct educator and private tour guide at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.


I would like to celebrate Black History Month by taking a closer look at one of the objects by a Black artist in the museum’s collection, “The 1920s / The Migrants Cast Their Ballot” by Jacob Lawrence, and explore its significance not only to our history, but also to our present and future. Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) was an artist known for documenting the lives of those in his community, as well as figures and events significant to the history and lived experiences of Black Americans.


Lawrence’s most recognized body of work is “The Migration Series,” a numbered sequence of 60 panel paintings depicting the Great Migration of Black Americans leaving rural farming communities in the South to seek better lives in the industrial cities of the North, peaking in the 1920s. Migration was a difficult choice, as it meant leaving behind an agricultural way of life and adopting an industrial way of life. The reasons for migrating away from the South were many, including racial discrimination and violence, poor economic opportunities and natural disasters. While life in the North delivered overall better opportunities for Black Americans, it wasn’t without drawbacks, including poor living conditions that enabled diseases such as tuberculosis to spread rampantly and more subtle, yet still devastating, racial discrimination.


Lawrence did not experience the Great Migration himself, but understood its significance from the experiences of his parents — his father and mother migrated to the North from South Carolina and Virginia, respectively. Lawrence grew up partially in Atlantic City, New Jersey and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but he really came of age in Manhattan, New York, engaging with and being mentored by other Black artists such as Augusta Savage during the Harlem Renaissance.


One important convergence between the histories of Lawrence and the Roswell Museum is our individual connection to the Works Progress Administration (WPA), established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to combat the financial challenges of the Great Depression. Lawrence benefited from WPA programs, including being paid to produce “The Migration Series” when he was just 23 years old. Today this series is jointly owned by MoMa (Museum of Modern Art) in Manhattan, New York, and the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. The Phillips Collection has an excellent online resource if you are interested in learning more about the series. On the other side of the country, the Roswell community similarly benefitted from WPA programs. The Roswell Museum itself came into being in 1937 as a result of WPA investment in public art centers across the country. Today, our museum is one of only a few of the WPA-funded art centers nationwide still functioning.


Lawrence worked on “The Migration Series” from 1940 to 1941, and it enabled him to become the first African American artist represented by a gallery in New York City. During World War II, Lawrence continued to break barriers when he was drafted into the U.S. Coast Guard’s first racially integrated crew. Thereafter, Lawrence pursued a teaching career at several institutions, including the University of Washington, where he taught from 1970 to 1986. At this point, he started working more in the medium of printmaking through which Lawrence revisited subjects and narratives from earlier in his career, including the Great Migration. The final panel of his “The Migration Series” is titled “And the migrants kept coming,” noting the Great Migration was not only history and present in the early 1940s, but also part of the future.


According to various sources and the website of the Brooklyn Museum, Lawrence was quoted saying that, to him, migration meant movement. There was conflict as well as struggle, Lawrence was reported as saying, but out of the struggle a kind of power and even beauty came. Lawrence also was said to have mentioned that “And the migrants kept coming” was a refrain of triumph over adversity.


The second-to-last panel in “The Migration Series” is titled “In the North they had the freedom to vote.” For many Black Americans fleeing the injustice of the Jim Crow-era South, enfranchisement was a new freedom. In 1976, Lawrence was one of 12 artists commissioned to create prints comprising the Kent Bicentennial Portfolio celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Each artist was asked to respond in any way they wished to the question, “What does independence mean to you?” Lawrence’s response depicts Black Americans exercising the right to vote for the first time in the 1920s, 50 years after the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified. Lawrence said, “During the post World War I period, millions of Black people left southern communities in the United States and migrated to northern cities. This migration reached its peak during the 1920s. Among the many advantages the migrants found in the north was the freedom to vote. In my print, migrants are represented exercising that freedom.”


The Kent Bicentennial Portfolio was printed in an edition of 125 and given to museums across the United States, including the Roswell Museum. Lawrence’s contribution is in our exhibition “Decades: The 1970s” currently on display through late May 2022. Works in the exhibition ask us to reflect on social issues of the 1970s that, in many ways, continue to challenge us today. For many, history has shown that voting cannot be taken for granted. As Katherine Mintie at the Harvard Art Museums wrote in “Voting Rights, from Emancipation to the Civil Rights Movement” just two years ago, “Lawrence reminds us that for many this foundational right of citizenship was — and continues to be — a struggle rather than a guarantee.”


Lawrence’s work on display at the Roswell Museum is more than an artist in the 1970s reflecting on the experiences of his parents in the Great Migration. It continues to be a reminder of our opportunity to shape the world of tomorrow by exercising our right to vote today.


Visit the Roswell City Clerk’s Office webpage for information on the 2022 Municipal Officers Election, including absentee voting until Feb. 25, early voting until February 26 and election day voting on March 1.


For more information about the Roswell Museum, visit

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