Panels like this one, which pairs an image of a crowd of migrants with a caption emphasizing continual movement over time, serve as a refrain throughout the Migration Series. They are periodic reminders of the sheer number of black southerners who left their homes and they underscore the Migration’s dramatic demographic impact. Between 1910 and 1920 more than 400,000 black southerners migrated north; by 1930 the total number exceeded 1.2 million, and by 1950 approximately three million African Americans had left the South. Taken together, Lawrence’s many paintings of migrants traveling side-by-side, whether on foot or by train, offer a politically potent image of collective self-transformation. “It is interesting to note that this migration is apparently a mass movement and not a movement of the leaders,” noted W.E.B. Du BoisScholar, educator, and activist who advocated for black advancement through education Read more in 1917. “The colored laborers and artisans have determined to find a way for themselves.”
Lawrence fills this panel with migrants seen from the waist up, their bodies cut off by the borders of the painting. Like a photographer or filmmaker framing a close-up, he composes a partial view of a group that implicitly extends far to the left and right of the picture. Lawrence gives no hint of his figures’ location, instead focusing on the act of moving.
The clamor and crush of the crowd, especially in New York, was a topic of great interest to many modernist writers and artists. In Ralph EllisonInnovative writer and author of the canonical Invisible Man Read more’s Invisible Man (1952), the narrator describes his arrival in Harlem in the early 1930s:
The train seemed to plunge downhill now, only to lunge to a stop that shot me out upon a platform feeling like something regurgitated from the belly of a frantic whale. … I swept along with the crowd, up the stairs into the hot street. … I had never seen so many black people against a background of brick buildings, neon signs, plate glass and roaring traffic. … They were everywhere. So many, and moving along with so much tension and noise that I wasn’t sure whether they were about to celebrate a holiday or join in a street fight.
The artist Reginald Marsh often depicted New York life, particularly scenes of leisure—at the beach, on city streets, at night clubs, and at the theater—marked by throngs of bodies so close to one another as to be intertwined. In Harlem, Tuesday Night at the Savoy (1932), Marsh depicts one of the experiences of being in a crowd in which southerners could partake upon arrival in New York: a night of dancing at a crowded, animated Harlem night club with a mixed-race clientele. The Savoy Ballroom, on Lenox Avenue between 140th and 141st Streets, was, in the words of writer Barbara Englebrecht, “a building, a geographic place, a ballroom, and the ‘soul’ of a neighborhood.’”