On This Day: Celebrating the Birthday of Jacob Lawrence

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"On This Day" is The North Star’s series that highlights important moments in history. Today, TNS is honoring the birthday of American painter Jacob Lawrence, who was known for his "dynamic cubism" painting series on historical figures in Black history.

Jacob Armstead Lawrence was born on September 7, 1917, in Atlantic City, New Jersey. After his parents separated when he was seven years old, his mother and siblings moved to Philadelphia and later moved to Harlem when he was 12 years old. After school, he attended the after school arts and crafts program at the Utopia Children’s Center, where painter Charles Alston operated the center and immediately recognized Lawrence’s talents.

During the Great Depression, Lawrence dropped out of high school before his junior year to find jobs to help his mother support the family. He enrolled in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal jobs program, and left Harlem for upstate New York. When he returned to Harlem, he became associated with the sculptor Augusta Savage and began painting his earliest Harlem scenes. He also met “Professor” Seifert, a Black lecturer and historian who encouraged Lawrence to learn more about African American culture by visiting the Schomburg Library in Harlem, Seifert’s personal library, and the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition of African art in 1935.

With Savage’s encouragement, Lawrence was assigned to an easel project with the W.P.A., the federal art project under the New Deal Program. Influenced by Seifert, Lawrence became interested in the life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Black revolutionary and founder of the Republic of Haiti. In 1937, he made The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture painting series, depicting the general’s achievements. Lawrence went on to create series like: “The Life of Frederick Douglass” (1938), “The Life of Harriet Tubman” (1939), “Harlem” (1942), “War” (1946), “The South” (1947) and more.

Lawrence’s best known series is “The Migration of the Negro” (1940-41), which portrays the migration of over a million African Americans between 1910 and 1940 from the South to the North and Industrial cities. In 1941, the series was exhibited at the Downtown Gallery in New York, making Lawrence the first Black artist to be represented by a downtown mainstream gallery at just 24 years old. The “Harlem” series was also exhibited in the Downtown Gallery in 1943.

By 1943, Lawrence had joined the U.S. Coast Guard. After he was discharged in 1945, he began painting again and was invited to teach at Black Mountain College in North Carolina by painter Josef Albers. In his career, Lawrence also taught at the Art Students League in New York, Brandeis University, the New School for Social Research, California State College at Hayward, the Pratt Institute, and the University of Washington, Seattle.

The Whitney Museum in New York held a major retrospective of Lawrence’s work in 1974. In December 1983, he was elected into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which is “an honor society of the country’s 250 leading architects, artists, composers, and writers.”

We remember Lawrence and his artwork that depicted the lives of important figures and moments in Black history.