For several decades beginning during World War I, millions of Black Americans left the southern United States for the North, Midwest, and West—a mass exodus known as the Great Migration. A child of migrants, Jacob Lawrence grew up in Harlem, where he set out from an early age to make art that addressed Black histories. “This is my genre...the happiness, tragedies, and the sorrows of mankind,” Lawrence stated. In 1940 he embarked on the Migration Series: 60 paintings featuring bold colors, pared-down forms, and narrative captions.
A peer of Lawrence’s, Elizabeth Catlett went to the 1941 premiere of the Migration Series at New York’s Downtown Gallery and was inspired by what she saw. Six years later, she completed The Black Woman, a series of prints that chronicles the oppression and resilience of subjects such as field laborers, domestic workers, historic abolitionists, and civil rights activists. Narrative captions written in the first person relate Catlett’s experience to that of the women she depicts.