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Art and Culture of The Great Migration

The Founding of Chicago, 1933

If you’ve read our recent blogpost detailing the timeline of the Great Migration, you know that the early twentieth century saw a massive amount of national relocation for African Americans in the south seeking greater opportunities. Step Afrika’s The Migration is an exploration and celebration of those who chose to migrate north. The Migration uses Jacob Lawrence’s visual art collection The Migration Series as a backdrop to their performances utilizing dances like South African Gumboot and Western African dance, as well as vocals and drumming to tell the story of the migration north.

However, The Migration Series is far from the only art that came out of or was inspired by the Great Migration. Numerous artists have created works directly impacted by this often undiscussed moment in American history, and many more could never have made work in the first place had the Great Migration not occured.

The Harlem Renaissance

The movement known as the Harlem Renaissance was born, literally, out of the Great Migration. Overdevelopment left new housing empty in Harlem, and the flood of African Americans migrating from the south filled it. The development of Harlem and the art that exploded out of it were a direct result of the Great Migration, including poet Langston Hughes, singer Florence Mills and dancer Bill Robinson.

Aaron Douglas

The Founding of Chicago, 1933

Born in Kansas in 1899, New York was a pit stop in his move north, and intending to eventually move to Europe. However, the artistic boom of Harlem in the early twentieth century drew him in, and he began to produce art there.

Douglas created murals and illustrations, mostly of which centered around social and racial issues in America. Through African imagery, Douglas portrays issues of segregation, exploitation, and prejudice.

Eubie Blake

Prior to the Great Migration, black roles in theatre were limited to minstrel parts, where they would be seen as the entertainment rather than the entertainer. With the migration north, black artists brought their own plays and musicals to New York, many of which cast African Americans in leading roles.

Eubie Blake, born 1883 in Maryland, and moved to New York to join the Harlem-based Society Orchestra in 1916. After World War 1, Blake wrote a number of Broadway musicals, including Shuffle Along, the first Broadway musical by and about African Americans.

Walter Ellison

Walter Ellison, born in 1899 in Georgia, migrated north to Chicago after serving in World War 1. Once there, he focused his art career on the lives of those who had moved to northern cities during the Great Migration.

Ellison’s most famous piece, Train Station, depicts black travellers flooding under signs reading “colored” to the north, while white passengers board trains to the south. Ellison depicts the station he left the south from, in Macon, Georgia.

Train Station, 1935

The Great Migration is a historic landmark for a variety of reasons, but American culture and art would not be the same without the contributions of the artists listed above as well as many others. If you are interested in learning more about the art of The Great Migration, check out our website for information on Jacob Lawrence or explore the links below.

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/04/20/telling-the-whole-story

https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/revisiting-great-migration-paintings-poetry

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