TUCKED AMONG A SERIES of reports on the automobile industry and articles on wind energy, Africa and geopolitics, the November 1941 issue of Fortune magazine features a portfolio of 26 paintings by Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000). Eight pages are devoted to “The Migration of the Negro,” his series depicting the great migration of black Americans from the rural South to the industrial North seeking jobs and opportunity between World Wars I and II.

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The November 1941 issue of Fortune magazine features 26 panels from “The Migration of the Negro” series by Jacob Lawrence on pages 102-109. View cover | Collection of Victoria L. Valentine

 

It was a groundbreaking moment—the first time a mainstream magazine published a significant feature focused on the work of an African American artist. “His use of harsh primary colors and his extreme simplicity of artistic statement have extraordinary force,” the introduction to the portfolio states. Lawrence was only 24 years old at the time and the triumph marked a turning point in his career.

Lawrence reflected on the significance of his work appearing in Fortune during an Oct. 26, 1968 oral history interview with the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art:

“I guess this is what you would call my first really big exposure. And I don’t think I’ve had anything bigger than that. …I think this was my really biggest exposure to the art world since I’ve been working.”
— Jacob Lawrence, Smithsonian oral history interview, Oct. 26, 1968

For Lawrence, 1941 was a banner year—both personally and professionally. In addition to the Fortune coup, he married fellow artist Gwendolyn Knight in July, celebrated the Fortune feature with an exhibit of the entire 60-panel migration series at Edith Halpern’s Downtown Gallery in November, and before the end of the year he signed a contract with Halpern, becoming the first African American artist to be represented by a major New York gallery.

Alain Locke introduced Halpern to Lawrence’s work and she contacted Deborah Calkins, an assistant art director at Fortune, about the project. Titled, “And the Migrants Kept Coming…:A Negro Artist Paints the Story of the Great American Minority,” the feature opens with un-bylined introductory copy that lauds Lawrence’s work and makes clear that the nature and experiences of “Negroes” are deeply foreign to the “mainstream” of America:

“…Though they represent a social and economic enigma of terrifying proportions, the 13 million U.S. Negroes are citizens of a shadowy subnation that is terra incognita to most whites.…Except when one intrudes on the nation’s consciousness as a great singer, musician, pugilist, or actor, the Negro is not an individual man but a great, dark, moiling mass with unknown aspirations, unknown potentialities.”
— Fortune Magazine, November 1941

More than a painter, Lawrence was a story teller. According to the Jacob and Gwen Knight Lawrence Foundation, after completing series on Toussaint L’Ouverture, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, he continued to probe the history of black perseverance, spending time around the fall of 1940 at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture conducting research for the migration project. The following spring, he commenced to paint in his nearby Harlem studio, an unheated loft at 33 West 125th Street where creatives including Romare Bearden, Robert Blackburn, William Attaway and Claude McKay also rented space.

Lawrence worked on the 60 panels simultaneously, painting one color across a series of panels in progress before going on to the next hue. He painted all of the instances of red on each of the panels, for example, then all of the browns, repeating the process for each of the colors to ensure that the tones were consistent from the first panel to the last. Gwendolyn, his wife, assisted in the production, preparing the gesso panels and helping to write the narrative captions that accompany the series.

According to “Exhibiting Blackness” by Bridget R. Cooks (p. 174), when the magazine agreed to publish Lawrence’s paintings, Locke got an early look and was extremely satisfied with presentation. In an October 1941 letter to his friend Peter Pollock, director of the South Side Community Center in Chicago, he wrote:

“I have seen the Lawrence Fortune lay-out. It is one of the most imposing things I have seen. The story, stressing social significance of the migrations is a masterpiece. Was done by the whole staff at several of our suggestions. The new masses couldn’t have done this thing better, and in this plutocratic magazine, I just can’t believe it.” — Alain Locke

“The Migration of the Negro” was well-received. A few months after the exhibition at the Downtown Gallery, the 60 panels were sold for $2,000. Although Lawrence created the series as a single work, it was divided between two institutions (ponying up $1,000 each). Adele Rosenwald Levy purchased the even-numberd panels for the Museum of Modern Art in New York in February 1942, and after exhibiting the entire series at what is now called the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., Duncan Phillips acquired the remaining even-numbered panels in March. CT

 

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Opening spread, Pages 102-103: The November 1941 issue of Fortune magazine features 26 panels from “The Migration of the Negro” series by Jacob Lawrence on pages 102-109. View cover | Collection of Victoria L. Valentine

 

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Pages 104-105.

In 1941, Fortune, like Life and Ebony magazines early on, was a large format publication measuring 11.25 by 14 inches with a heavy stock cover similar to a papeback book and weighty matte-pages like watercolor paper.

 

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Pages 106-107.

Swann Galleries sold a November 1941 edition of Fortune magazine for $450 (including the buyer’s premium; the hammer price was $375) at its Printed and Manuscript African-Americana auction on March 21, 2013.

 

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Pages 108-109.

In 1993, Jacob Lawrence revised the name of the series from “The Migration of the Negro” to “The Migration Series,” and also fine-tuned the narrative, rewriting some of the captions.

 

BOOKSHELF
“Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series,” edited by Elizabeth Hutton Turner (Phillips Collection, 1993), features an introduction by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and an essay by Lonnie Bunche, now the director of the Smithsonian’s forthcoming National Museum of African American History and Culture. “The Great Migration: An American Story” (Perfection Learning, 1995), a book for children about the series, was published a couple of years later and includes a contribution by author Walter Dean Myers.

 

READ MORE
An audio slideshow from MoMA about the migration series includes comments from Jacob Lawrence explaining how he painted the panels.

The Phillips Collection has created an interactive education platform about the migration series that features images of the 60 panels, audio of Jacob Lawrence and correspondence between the artist and his dealer Edith Halpern stating his reservations about dividing the work.

 

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