Filled with new opportunities, electric lights, and a variety of entertainments, cities were more attractive than they had ever been in the 1920s and 1930s. The scene of an New York subway by artist Lily Furedi serves to help illustrates how new technologies of this era, like mass transit, contributed to the exponential growth of urban areas. The painting also exemplifies the diverse interactions of an urban environment; black and white, rich and poor, men and women all sit together, mixed in the same space with no evidence of societal discomfort. In other areas of the country, however, things were not as agreeable for African Americans. Rising racial tensions in the South are brought to light in Bar and Grill, depicting a segregated bar in 1940s New Orleans; blacks and whites separated by a floor to ceiling partition. The scene came as a shock to the artist, Jacob Lawrence, who hailed from the non-segregated North. This time period was a pivotal time for African Americans. Known as the Great Migration, blacks traveled north to urbanized areas looking for jobs, economic prosperity, and opportunity. Between 1900 and 1940, the black population of the five boroughs of Manhattan rose from 60,000 to more than 400,000. The excitement of this new life was unimaginable in the small towns of the South, so many remained in New York. This largely transplanted community faced two enormous tasks: to explore the cultures and civilizations of Africa, and to redefine the black experience in the United States. They did this in the form of a movement called the Harlem Renaissance, which began after World War I in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem. African American poets, musicians, writers, and painters gathered in this predominantly black area to create works of art that celebrated the uniqueness of African American culture and what blacks had achieved, despite great odds, in the United States.
Activity: Observe and Interpret
Born in New York, Jacob Lawrence had only second-hand knowledge of the South, passed down from his Virginia-born mother and South Carolinian father. He remarked in 1961: “[In 1941] if you weren’t born in the South, your parents were. Your life had a whole Southern flavor; it wasn’t an alien experience to you even if you had never been there.”
In 1941, he and his wife, artist Gwendolyn Knight, traveled to New Orleans and were struck by the harsh segregation and bigotry they experienced. Lawrence began making paintings that documented the life of African Americans in New Orleans, including Bar and Grill. What information can we learn about segregation and life in the South in the early 1940s from this painting? What clues does Jacob Lawrence give us?
Observation: What do you see?
Describe the physical layout of the bar.
A wooden wall bisects the room, running floor to ceiling, from the entrance doors to the bar. The wall is not solid, and some light shines between the wooden slats. The wall does not bisect the room equally. The space on the left, where we see only White patrons, is larger than the room on the right side of the wall, reserved for Black customers. A long solid bar in the foreground of the painting links the two sides of the room. The bar appears to tilt up slightly at the right end of the composition, and coupled with the diagonal line of the ceiling sloping slightly downward, makes the room on the right appear smaller and more crowded.
What amenities are available to the customers on either side?
Notice the ceiling fan on the left side, available to cool the air for White customers only. Drinking glasses line a shelf behind the bar, yet are kept separate for Black and White customers. On the left, glasses are arranged in a pyramid; on the right, they are lined up. Paralleling the separate glassware are separate faucets or spigots, two on the right side of the wall and two on the left. Each set has a spout with black tubing running down, outside of the frame.
How are the patrons depicted on either side of the dividing wall? Does their experience differ?
Behind the bar, a white barkeeper reads a newspaper on the left side of the painting, on the side of the house reserved for White patrons. Three men drink at the bar, the lines of their lapels, shirts and neckties contrasting with their black and white suits. Their faces seem serious and the angles of their bodies cause the eye to travel one to the next, then back to a figure in red and a scowling figure behind them.
As we turn our attention to the right side of the bar, we begin to note differences. The dark-skinned figures here are smaller in scale, which makes them seem both far away and child-like. The woman in red whose v-shaped neckline rhymes with the glass in front of her sits with eyes downcast. A man to her right smokes, but has no ashtray. Two figures near the door overlap with arms outstretched and interlocked fingers, perhaps dancing.
Interpretation: What does it mean?
Traveling to the South for the first time, Jacob Lawrence makes the deeply-entrenched segregation that he and his wife experienced abundantly clear. Black and White patrons in the bar are separated by a wall and made to use separate entrances, and the services (as symbolized by the barkeeper) appear to be more readily provided to White customers. Amenities, in the form of the ceiling fan and ashtray, are not available to Black patrons. Water faucets and glassware are kept separate. White customers are depicted as equal to one another in size and unified in the artist’s use of color, and their facial expressions appear unwelcoming.
The Jim Crow South
Though the Reconstruction era (1865-1877) had sought to right the wrongs done to African Americans during slavery, not much had changed in the way of their civil rights after Reconstruction ended. In fact, the civil rights of blacks began to be further impinged upon by a series of laws, collectively called Jim Crow laws, designed to segregate, discriminate, and intimidate.
The tightening of segregation began with sharecropping. The Southern economy was dominated by agriculture. The few factories and mills that did exist preferred to employ white labor over black labor due to the prevailing racist stereotype that blacks were lazy and shiftless. Consequently the majority of freed African Americans were forced into sharecropping – a system of agriculture in which a landowner allows a tenant to use his land in return for a share of the crop produced on that land.
Former slaves had expected that the federal government would provide them with land as a compensation for the work they had done before emancipation. A plan known colloquially as “forty acres and a mule,” whereby each formerly enslaved family would receive “not more than forty acres of tillable ground.” However, President Andrew Johnson enacted a Reconstruction law which ordered that all land under federal control be returned to its previous owners – the white landowners. Freed slaves were informed that they either had to sign labor contracts with the landowners or be evicted from the land.
The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was meant to guarantee freed blacks equal treatment in public accommodations such as hotels, public transportation, and theaters. But in 1883, several provisions of the Act were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in a group of five cases collectively called the Civil Rights Cases. The majority rule held that the provisions were unconstitutional because Congress did not have the authority to regulate private affairs under the Fourteenth Amendment, which protected a person’s civil rights from being violated by the state, not by individuals – such as when a hotel refused to rent a room to an African American. The Supreme Court held that the Act addressed social rather than civil rights, and was consequently invalid.
The Supreme Court’s decision created a ripple effect across the South. State legislatures began enacting laws legalizing segregation in public places. These Jim Crow laws imposed segregation and denied African Americans equality and political rights. The Supreme Court upheld these Jim Crow laws in the 1896 landmark case Plessy v. Ferguson, which maintained the constitutionality of the “separate but equal” doctrine.
New Orleans: Segregation in the Deep South
Following the end of Reconstruction, New Orleans became increasingly segregated as Jim Crow laws were introduced by law makers who wanted to see the South returned to the days of white privilege that existed before the Civil War. Between 1900 and 1950 New Orleans’ population grew slowly, yet shifted dramatically. A city with once heterogeneous communities became increasingly segregated under Jim Crow. Ironically, New Orleans did not start out as such a segregated city. In the early nineteenth century New Orleans’ population was increasingly diverse, divided evenly into thirds: white, free people of color, and slaves. This can be attributed to New Orleans’ unique geographical location. A port city, it received slaves as part of the Triangular Trade routes. It remained a transportation hub throughout the first half of nineteenth century with New Orleans’ booming cotton economy.
Yet segregation was fully entrenched in New Orleans when artist Jacob Lawrence arrived there in 1941. Segregation in public housing created by the New Deal and on a new street car system kept whites and blacks further apart. Legislation required that Lawrence ride in the back of city buses and live in a racially segregated neighborhood. The artist experienced firsthand the daily reality of Jim Crow segregation, which he captured in Bar and Grill and other paintings that dealt with what he called the “life of Negroes here in New Orleans.” As an African American who grew up in the North, Lawrence only had secondhand knowledge of the South, yet he felt connected with the region’s culture through association. He later remarked, “Any Negro person has a strong relationship to the South. . . . Your life had a whole Southern flavor; it wasn’t an alien experience to you even if you had never been there.”
Most bars in 1940s New Orleans were entirely segregated – each whole establishment being reserved exclusively for white patrons, or for black patrons. Jim Crow laws had re-established the literal and figurative wall between blacks and whites. It is in this climate that Jacob Lawrence painted Bar and Grill, conjoining separate, segregated businesses into one bar divided down the middle, between black and white patrons. The message that blatant segregation and systematic racism was a reality in the American South seems clear.
Leaving the South
Many African Americans were eager to escape the legal system in the South and the miseries it caused for black citizens. By law, African Americans were denied access to the same institutions that were used by whites, like hospitals and schools. They also had few legal rights. Whites could assault or even kill blacks with little fear of being tried in a court of law or imprisoned. The discriminatory Jim Crow laws helped to perpetuate a social and economic system that kept Southern blacks subjugated. The majority of Southern African Americans lived in poverty. Those who did manage to obtain an education or excel at a profession risked becoming victims of violence by whites who did not want to see them rise above their supposed position.
Many young African Americans who made the decision to journey north had experienced the hardships of life on sharecropper farms, subjected to Jim Crow laws, and abuse and intimidation from the Ku Klux Klan. They saw how their parents’ generation were subjected to the injustices of Southern society. Their reasons for migration were numerous, but overall, the desire to better their condition prevailed above all else – they wanted to experience the freedom and opportunities that the North offered. At this time in the country’s history, industrial expansion created economic opportunities for these rural migrants. And opportunities were only growing for blacks in the North with the onset of World War I expanding the booming industrial economy. The stage was now set for the Great Migration.
The Great Migration
In the years preceding World War I, a slow but steady migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North began. This was the beginning of a phenomenon called the Great Migration. The rationale for leaving the South was different for every migrant, but largely, the hope for a better life was paramount. The booming industrial economy in World War I-era America contributed to a wealth of job opportunities and better pay for African Americans. In the north, their children would have the opportunity to seek an education. Migration also offered African Americans the chance to escape discrimination, segregation, and the Jim Crow laws that violated their civil rights.
Prior to World War I, the chances for African Americans to land a lucrative job in the manufacturing industry were slim. They were blocked from these types of positions by unions who wanted to preserve the higher paying jobs for white workers.But that all began to change with the advent of the war in 1914 when immigration to the United States from Europe came to a virtual standstill. Although the United States was not directly involved with the war, American industry produced weapons and other war supplies. The need for more workers was urgent – without a steady flow of white immigrant employees, booming war-time industries were desperate for workers. Racial prejudice had kept companies from hiring African Americans, but the profit they stood to make during the war-time economy overrode any hiring prejudice.
Desperate for workers, many industries central to the burgeoning war economy like steel mills and railroads actively recruited African Americans. Some went as far as to send recruiting agents down to largely black-populated areas of the South to search for workers. Railroad companies were the first to recruit. The Pennsylvania Railroad recruited 16,000 African Americans in 1916 as unskilled laborers. Many impoverished blacks seized this new economic opportunity and migrated north where the work was plentiful. According to a 1917 survey in The Crisis magazine, the number one reason to leave the South was poor pay, followed by lack of good schools, discrimination, and oppression. Farm workers in the South made on average $0.75 per day, whereas in cities, factory work brought wages as high as $4.00 a day. Those early migrants wrote back home to their friends and family expressing just how abundant employment and high wages were: “Nothing here but money, and it is not hard to get,” wrote one worker.
By 1920 more than 1.5 million blacks were working in northern factories and other urban jobs. Black newspapers aided the migration fever by advertising the advantages of living and working in northern cities, and publishing stories of recent migrants who had found success. The letters these migrants sent back home confirmed stories of higher wages and less discrimination. The letters were read aloud in barbershops, churches, and meeting halls. One migrant, living in Chicago, wrote home about the abundance of work:
I am quite busy. I work in Swifts packing Co. in the sausage department. My daughter and I work for the same company – We get $1.50 a day and we pack so many sausages we dont have much time to play but it is a matter of a dollar with me and I feel that God made the path and I am walking therein. Tell your husband work is plentiful here and he wont have to loaf is he want to work.*
Another migrant wrote of the freeing experience of not having to kowtow to whites as he would have in the South:
With the aid of God I am making very good I make $75 per month. . . . I don’t have to work hard. dont have to mister every little white boy comes along . . . I can ride in the electric street and steam cars any where I get a seat. I dont care to mix with white folk what I mean I am not crazy about being with white folks, but if I have to pay the same fare I have learn to want to the same acomidation.*
[*The spelling and grammar mistakes in the quotes above have not been corrected and appear verbatim as on the primary source document.]
With more and more African Americans leaving the South, a backlash soon occurred against the labor agents who were facilitating the migration. Southern states were angered, having found their economies struggling and their cheap source of labor diminishing. But by this time as word spread about the opportunities the North held, the role of labor agents became unnecessary and more and more migrants fled the South.
It is a misconception to think that the average migrant was a poor sharecropper. In fact, the majority of black migrants came from southern towns and were accustomed to a more urban environment. They were moderately well-off and were generally more educated than the average African American in the South. Many came from a skilled professional class, having worked as teachers, lawyers, social workers, and writers.
Once migrants had made the difficult decision to leave their families behind to migrate, the question became how to make the journey. Migrating was expensive, which was why families rarely migrated together. It was the young men who found jobs as unskilled industrial laborers who were the first to migrate. As the role of labor agents diminished, African American could no longer count on northern businesses to pay their way. Many had to sell all of their possessions. Some borrowed money from friends and family. Often, families pooled their money together to send a younger man in the family northward, with the expectation he would mail money back home to help the rest of the family follow him.
The trip north could be made by train, bus, horse-drawn cart, or even by foot. The journey was a long, grueling experience. Travelers were confronted with segregated waiting rooms at bus stops, and overcrowded, segregated train cars. The destination of the migrants were the large industrial centers of the north – Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and New York City, but many stops were often made along the way. Painter Jacob Lawrence recalled that his family was “moving up the coast, as many families were doing during that migration. . . . We moved up to various cities until we arrived – the last two cities I can remember before moving to New York were Easton, Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia.” Once in their destination city, migrants often relied on the help of African American service organizations, like the National Urban League in New York City and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), to help them find jobs and living arrangements. The league also assisted migrants in their move from the South, helped black workers prepare for jobs in manufacturing industries, and lobbied white employers to provide employment opportunities to blacks.
The Aftermath of Migration
From 1870 to 1910 approximately 470,000 African Americans left the South. In the next ten years, from 1910 to 1920, another 450,000 migrated. The migration only came to a halt with the start of the Great Depression. The severe economic downturn dried up virtually all employment opportunities in the North. Conditions for all Americans would not improve until the start of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. This series of domestic programs improved economic conditions and spurred a second wave of migration from the South, known as the Second Great Migration, a wave that would last throughout the 1960s.
But it was the first wave, the Great Migration, that arguably had the greatest impact on northern cities, not just in terms of population growth, but with regards to the cultural movement that growth spurred. Would-be migrants in the South had heard tales of theaters with musicals and films featuring black performers, nightclubs featuring the best African American musicians, and baseball games played by all-black teams. The Northern cities to which the Southern migrants journeyed emerged as hubs of cultural, social, and artistic creativity and interaction. It wasn’t a dream. This cultural movement which took place across a multitude of northern cities – the Harlem Renaissance – became reality for hundreds of thousands of African Americans.
New York City: The Harlem Renaissance and Beyond
When the Great Migration began, rural African Americans came to Northern cities to better their circumstances. The hardships and abuses they had endured in the South propelled them to seek a better future in the North, one of economic prosperity and freedom from persecution and Jim Crow laws. These Southern migrants joined established African American communities, strengthening church groups and fraternal societies. By 1920, the bulk of the African American population in northern states was concentrated in the cities of Cincinnati, Chicago, Columbus, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and New York; all industrial centers of production. In New York City, African Americans flocked to the city’s Harlem neighborhood – sowing the seeds for what would come to be known as the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural, social, and artistic revolution that flourished in the 1920s.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Harlem was a haven, a place of self-discovery, cultural awareness, and political activism for African Americans. It nourished an artistic flowering of unprecedented richness. It was literature, painting, and music; it was movies, poetry, and jazz. This concentration of talented and socially-conscious African Americans produced immense talent – writers Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, artists Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, musicians Bessie Smith and Duke Ellington, and activists like Marcus Garvey and A. Philip Randolph.
The apartment blocks and brownstones of Harlem were opened to black residents in 1905. Between 1900 and 1940, the black population of the five boroughs of Manhattan rose from 60,000 to more than 400,000. Black soldiers returning from World War I flocked to Harlem – perhaps initially as a midway point on their way back home. In their travels abroad they had experienced the freedom offered in European cities and had seen the popularity of American jazz in Paris and London. The excitement of this new life was unimaginable in the small towns of the South, so many remained in New York. This largely transplanted community redefined the black experience in the United States.
By the 1920s Harlem had become the most famous African American community in the world. The concentration of black men and women in Harlem produced a lively scene. The accumulation of books, journals, and ideas sparked interest in African music, images, and history. The 135th Street Library, depicted in Lawrence’s The Library, became the cultural linchpin of Harlem. It was a resource for artists and thinkers, a meeting place, the site of fierce intellectual debates, and a venue for plays and musical performances. In a cosmopolitan community people expressed their enthusiasm for this new life through jazz, dance, theater, art, and writing. The Harlem Renaissance coincided with the Roaring Twenties and the Jazz Age. The impact of these movements had a drastic impact on an individual and collective level in both the African American community, as well as America’s cultural industries. The contributions of African Americans greatly benefited the film, music, and theater industries.
Some, like the poet Countee Cullen, were Harlem-born; others like Langston Hughes migrated. A nineteen year old Hughes, born in Joplin, Missouri, arrived in Harlem in 1921 and vividly recalled his excitement of seeing Harlem for the first time:
I can never put on paper the thrill of that underground ride to Harlem. I had never been in a subway before and it fascinated me – the noise, the speed, the green lights ahead. At every station I kept watching for the sign: 135TH STREET. When I saw it, I held my breath. I came out onto the platform with two heavy bags and looked around. It was still early morning and people were going to work. Hundreds of colored people! I wanted to shake hands with them, speak to them.
Hughes would become one of Harlem’s most famous residents, a literary giant whose poems chronicled the struggles and joys of early twentieth century African Americans. He and other young writers and artists would take ownership of the Harlem Renaissance movement, giving a voice to the African American experience.
When Alain Locke published The New Negro in 1925, Harlem’s political and cultural facets gained a sharper focus. Literary contributions by Countee Cullen and Zora Neale Hurston spoke of the black experience, but Locke’s book offered far more than a record of daily life with its joys and sorrows. Locke sought to reestablish art as the core of black life. He argued that African Americans should express an African art uncontaminated by the industrial age, rooted in pure ethnic craft and tradition. Through The New Negro, he called on African Americans to accomplish this task.
Photographer James VanDerZee was the semiofficial photographer of Harlem’s life and people. His images traveled throughout the country in magazines and book illustrations. VanDerZee had a portrait studio, but he also worked on the street, recording the details of everyday life, both political and personal. His images helped disseminate sociological concepts on race articulated by African American leaders W.E.B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, and Marcus Garvey. Sculptor Augusta Savage produced images that ranged from street urchins to idealizations of the African muse, and ran a series of schools for budding artists.
The artists of the Harlem Renaissance sought to explore and represent the African American experience in their work. They fostered a new sense of pride in the black community and provided a voice to the desire of African Americans to at long last achieve a measure of equality in American society. The influence of these artists resonates far beyond the place and time in which they worked; it has been felt throughout the century and the whole of American culture.
A Changing City
In the nineteenth century, the city of New York had been characterized by a variety of land uses which separated people of different ethnic groups and economic classes. But as more and more people poured into urban centers in the early twentieth century, the spatial arrangement of people and economic activities became altered by innovations in mass transit and building construction. In New York City, the first subway opened in 1904, its tunnels excavated out of clay and rock by the vast numbers of largely Irish, Italian, and German immigrants. Between 1900 and 1920, New York built 100 miles of subway tunnels. Thanks to the subway, people were no longer segregated to one part of the city. Those who had migrated to this evolving urban environment from the South experienced a vastly different world than the one to which they had been accustomed. Hungarian-American artist Lily Furedi’s painting Subway typifies this lack of segregation on the New York subway. Passengers of different races, classes, genders, and national backgrounds ride together with no sign of friction – a marked contrast to the institutionalized racial segregation which was the case at this time in the southern United States.
Furedi’s clean, pleasant depiction of the interior of a subway car is a particularly optimistic view of a new train car running on the new Eighth Avenue Line, built in 1932. She painted Subway in 1934 for the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), the first of the New Deal national art programs of the Great Depression. The PWAP suggested that artists depict aspects of “the American scene.” Furedi, like many New York City artists, chose to show a familiar aspect of urban daily life that would have been familiar to millions of New Yorkers. People from all economic backgrounds could afford to ride the subway because of the traditional 5 cent fare. Newspaper articles from the 1920s note that people of all different national backgrounds rode together on the New York subway, often reading newspapers in wide range of languages, and casually reading over one another’s shoulders as we see happening at the left in Furedi’s painting. Though the New York City subway system was not segregated, there had been some discussion of setting aside special cars for women – mostly to avoid issues of harassment. At this time, women had begun entering the work force in large numbers. The women we see in Furedi’s painting may be commuting to work.
In the first quarter of the twentieth century, women occupied jobs as domestic servants or in factory work – especially during the World War I years. When the war ended, many of these enterprising women moved on to sales jobs in department stores, or clerical and secretarial work. In 1920, the New York Times ran a headline that read, “the American Woman . . . has lifted her skirts far beyond any modest limitation.” This commentary went beyond fashion – it was a an observation of the profusion of liberated women in the workforce. The Manhattan borough of New York City employed 10,000 office workers in the 1930s, most of whom were women. Office work was seen as a place where a woman could improve both her employment and her personal status. The change in women’s roles, as well as the massive African American migration to the North, identified a shift that was taking place in America from a rural, production-oriented economy to an urban, consumption-oriented economy. Much of the work previously carried out within the home – food preparation, care of the sick, production of clothing – was now being performed by workers in restaurants, hospitals, and factories. In artworks similar to Furedi’s Subway, depictions of independent working women were closely aligned with the development of cities and the spaces of modernity. Black women especially took advantage of this changing environment and the wartime need for workers. In 1910, 30 percent of black women in New York worked outside the home in occupations that ranged from seamstress and dressmaker, to factory worker and secretary. Before the war, the only jobs open to black women would have been those in the domestic and personal-service categories.
Primary Source Connections
New Orleans City Guide, 1938, Federal Writers’ Project of the WPA
Read it at Archive.org (page xL)
The stark divisions between the ample facilities listed for white customers and the meager and condescending listings of “negro” facilities gives ample evidence of the segregation that was in full force in New Orleans in the 1930s, not long before Jacob and his wife, artist Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, arrived there. The following is an excerpt:
The Negro night clubs of New Orleans are patterned after those of Harlem. The proprietors visit Harlem to study the color schemes and acquire the atmosphere of night clubs there, because ‘it serves well along publicity lines.’ Even the music and floor shows are handled in the Harlem manner – nothing less than ‘red hot.’ The tunes are loud but have the ‘swing’ that causes Negroes to move their bodies and tap their feet.
“South Unable to Stop Negro Exodus,” October 23, 1916, The Washington Times
View the article at the Library of Congress
This front page headline of the Washington Times highlights the role of labor agents in bringing African Americans to the North, as well as the some of the difficulties blacks encountered during their migration.
“Bound for the Promised Land” by Mr. Ward, in The Chicago Defender, November 11, 1916
Download a transcript of the poem (PDF)
The Chicago Defender was arguably one of the most influential black-owned publications to help spur the Great Migration by touting the advantages of living in the North. In this poem published in 1916, the narrator celebrates his decision to leave Florida and journey north. He is equally excited to escape the restrictive laws of Jim Crow as he is to experience freedom in the North. His pro-migration stance encourages the reader to “hold up your head with courage brave” and follow him on the journey north.
“The City of Refuge” by Rudolph Fisher, in the Atlantic Monthly, February 1925
Read it at the National Humanities Center.org
This short story, originally published in the literary and cultural commentary magazine the Atlantic Monthly, tells the story of King Solomon Gillis, a young black man from North Carolina who has recently arrived in Harlem as a fugitive on the run. Back home, he accidentally killed a white man – a crime which would likely be punished with a grisly death. In the South of the 1920s, any African American who killed a white person could be expected to be publicly lynched without the benefit of a trial. The following is an excerpt that describes Gillis’ arrival in Harlem.
Then slowly, spreadingly, he grinned at what he saw: Negroes at every turn; up and down Lenox Avenue, up and down 135th Street; big, lanky Negroes, short, squat Negroes; black ones, brown ones, yellow ones; men standing idle on the curb, women, bundle-laden, trudging reluctantly homeward, children rattle-trapping about the sidewalks; here and there a white face drifting along, but Negroes predominantly, overwhelmingly everywhere. There was assuredly no doubt of his whereabouts. This was Negro Harlem.
“One Way Ticket,” Langston Hughes, 1948
Read it at the National Humanities Center.org
Langston Hughes (1907-1967) was an African-American poet, novelist, and playwright who is one of the great icons of the Harlem Renaissance. In 1948, he asked artist Jacob Lawrence to illustrate his new poetry book, One Way Ticket, shown below. The poem for which the book is named describes the vast networks of routes that migrants took as the escaped the South and traveled north. Lawrence’s companion brush and ink drawings explore scenes from the Great Migration, from crowded train stations to graphic images of lynchings.
I am fed up
With Jim Crow laws,
People who are cruel
Who lynch and run,
Who are scared of me
And me of them.
“The Subway (96th Street to 137th Street),” Joyce Kilmer, 1910
As early as 1910, poets like Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918) used the subway and other methods of urban transportation as vehicles for ideological critiques of the rise of class divisions in modern America. Kilmer’s “The Subway” depicts the train as an indiscriminate mixing of classes, races, and genders.
Tired clerks, pale girls, street cleaners, business men,
Boys, priests and harlots, drunkards, students, thieves,
Each one the pleasant outer sunshine leaves;
They mingle in this stifling, loud-wheeled pen.
The gate clangs to- we stir- we sway- and then
We thunder through the dark. The long train weaves
Its gloomy way. At last above the eaves
We see awhile God’s day, then night again.
Hurled through the dark- day at Manhattan Street,
The rest all night. That is my life, it seems.
Through sunless ways go my reluctant feet.
The sunlight comes in transitory gleams.
And yet the darkness makes the light more sweet,
The perfect light about me- in my dreams.
Dixie Cafe, 1948, Jacob Lawrence
Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture
Lawrence’s black and white brush and ink drawing utilizes the same side-by-side composition as Bar and Grill. Like Bar and Grill, the space reserved for African Americans in Dixie Cafe seems constricted and cramped, while the space reserved for whites appears much more spacious and open. The distinctions between the “colored” and “white” sides of the cafe are put into even starker contrast with the lack of pigment.
Early Morning Work, ca. 1940, William H. Johnson
Early Morning Work presents a clear narrative: the day’s chores must be done. But the scene is more than a reminiscence of rural life for many African Americans before the Great Migration. Though seemingly primitive, the flattened forms and deliberately naïve perspective Johnson used were informed by years of artistic discipline. The man’s profile is a beautifully rendered drawing of an African mask. Hands and mule hoofs are disproportionately large, while the horizontal stripes offer a visual cadence punctuated by the circular forms of a wheel and chickens pecking at the ground.
Untitled–Boy on Subway Seat, from the portfolio Photographs of New York, ca. 1938-1945, printed 1976, Reginald Marsh
This photograph was taken sometime between 1938 and 1945 by Reginald Marsh. In paintings, prints, watercolors and photographs, he captured the animation and visual turbulence that made urban New York life an exhilarating spectacle. Marsh’s subjects were not glamorous or affluent New Yorkers, but those in the middle and lower class—Bowery bums, park denizens, and subway riders. Marsh was fascinated by the humanity expressed by those living under severe economic and social duress.
Street Life, Harlem, ca. 1939-1940, William H. Johnson
In Street Life, Harlem, William H. Johnson portrayed an elegant couple dressed “to the nines” for an evening on the town. Style, as much as skin color, was a mark of pride among many African Americans who had come of age during the Harlem Renaissance, but the flamboyant appearance of zoot-suiters inflamed racial tensions long after swing music and the jitterbug had been absorbed into American popular culture.
Café, ca. 1939-1940, William H. Johnson
Johnson spent decades traveling the world, searching for the authentic spirit of ordinary people from different cultures. In the late 1930s, he found what he was looking for in his own African American community. The strong colors and silhouettes in this painting evoke the African art that black artists and writers had embraced during the Harlem Renaissance. But this affectionate couple also has the fashionable flash of zoot-suiters in the big band era. Above the table, the two figures coolly take in the café scene; below, a tangle of legs and limbs hints at the erotic energy of a night on the town.
Evening Attire, 1922, James VanDerZee
James VanDerZee’s photograph of a Harlem resident is one of thousands of his meticulously composed and polished studio photographs that capture the image and spirit of the New Negro movement—the efforts of black artists, academics, critics, and consumers that promoted African American social issues in the mid-1920s and 1930s. This fashionable young woman, perched casually on a table, gazes confidently into the camera while decked out in her evening attire, a fur gracing the shoulders of her fancy beaded dress and flowers filling her arms. The woman’s identity is unknown, but her confident bearing, sophisticated attire, and carefully curated surroundings signify the economic and social aspirations of many African Americans in the 1920s. Proponents of the New Negro movement believed that establishing a thriving middle class was necessary before significant civil rights progress could be made. To help foster an ideal of success, many African Americans created stylized images of themselves, a ritual with history in American and European portraiture.
Jacob Lawrence on the Great Migration – The Philips Collection (2 mins)
Jacob Lawrence shares his personal and familial ties to the Great Migration. Visit Jacob Lawrence: The Great Migration Series
Langston Hughes & the Harlem Renaissance: Crash Course Literature – PBS (11 min) TV-G
Langston Hughes was a poet and playwright in the first half of the 20th century, and he was involved in the Harlem Renaissance, which was a cultural movement among African Americans of the time that produced all kinds of great works in literature, poetry, painting, sculpture, music, and other areas.
How did the Great Migration change America? (1 min) From The Gilder Lehrman Institute on Vimeo.
Additional Smithsonian Resources
Exploring all 19 Smithsonian museums is a great way to enhance your curriculum, no matter what your discipline may be. In this section, you’ll find resources that we have put together from a variety of Smithsonian museums to enhance your students’ learning experience, broaden their skill set, and not only meet education standards, but exceed them.
African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond – Smithsonian American Art Museum
A selection of paintings, sculpture, prints, and photographs by forty-three black artists who explored the African American experience from the Harlem Renaissance through the Civil Rights era and the decades beyond, which saw tremendous social and political changes.
America on the Move – Smithsonian National Museum of American History
Travel across America to communities changed by transportation, investigate artifacts and images in the Smithsonian, and explore transportation in American history with historians and curators.
Subject: Language Arts
The Blues and Langston Hughes – Smithsonian Education
Students learn the structure of the blues stanza, both in music and in the blues-based poems of Langston Hughes. This set of lessons is divided into grades K–2, 3–5, 6–8, and 9–12. Younger students compose their own three-line blues poems. Older students listen for details of the Great Migration in recordings of rural and urban blues from Smithsonian Folkways.
The Music in Poetry – Smithsonian Education
The lessons in this issue introduce students to the rhythms of poetry. The focus in on two poetic forms that originated as forms of song: the BALLAD stanza, found throughout British and American literature, and the BLUES stanzas of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes. The exercises take poetry off the page and put it into terms of movement, physical space, and, finally, music.
Life in the Promised Land: African-American Migrants in Northern Cities, 1916-1940 (PDF) – Smithsonian Education
The issue includes a story of two African Americans and their unique journeys to the North. Students analyze the story and put it in context using the background information provided. They are then asked to write a “magazine article” or an essay based on interviews with a family member or friend who migrated to their community as an adult.
135th Street Library: a branch of the New York Public Library, it opened in 1905 and became a cultural epi-center of the Harlem Renaissance. It hosted the first exhibition of African American art in Harlem, and was the only branch to employ blacks in the 1920s.
A. Philip Randolph: (1889-1979) leader of the African American Civil Rights Movement, Randolph organized the first African American labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
Alain Locke: (1885-1954) African American writer, philosopher, and educator. He has the distinction of being the first African American awarded the Rhodes Scholarship.
Andrew Johnson: (1808-1875) 17th President of the United States. He became president on the death of Abraham Lincoln, having served as Lincoln’s vice president. His plans to restore the seceded states to the Union without protection to former slaves led to his impeachment by the House of Representatives.
Augusta Savage: (1892-1962) African American sculptor and educator active during the Harlem Renaissance. Her studio became the place where the careers of many future generations of African Americans artists started.
Bessie Smith: (1894-1937) American Blues singer. Nicknamed “Empress of the Blues,” Smith was the most popular and successful female Blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s, influencing many musicians of the Harlem Renaissance era.
Civil Rights Act of 1875: a federal law enacted during Reconstruction which intended to guarantee freed blacks equal treatment in public accommodations, such as hotels, public transportation, and theaters. The bulk of the law’s provisions were ruled unconstitutional in 1883 by the Supreme Court.
Countee Cullen: (1903-1946) African American poet and leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance. He is best known for his poem “Heritage,” which reflects an urge to reclaim African arts.
The Crisis: the official magazine of the NAACP, founded in 1910.
Duke Ellington: (1899-1974) American composer, pianist, and Jazz band leader. He was the originator of big band Jazz music. A pioneer of the Harlem Renaissance, Ellington came to national prominence with performances at the Cotton Club in Harlem, a famous “whites only” New York City nightclub which featured the most popular African American entertainers of the day.
forty acres and a mule: a concept of land redistribution for freed slaves, whereby Congress authorized the Freedman’s Bureau to oversee the rental of 40 acre parcels of abandoned or confiscated farmland (formerly owned by Southern plantation owners) with the eventual option to purchase.
Fourteenth Amendment: (1868) granted citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” which included former slaves recently freed. In addition, it forbids states from denying any person “life, liberty or property, without due process of law” or to “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt: (1882-1945) 32nd President of the United States, commonly known by his initials, FDR. He is best known for his series of social programs, called the New Deal, which focused on relief, recovery, and reform to combat the effects of the Great Depression. He won a record four presidential elections, which led to the passage of the 22nd Amendment, barring presidents from serving more than two full terms.
Great Migration: (1910-1930) the first wave of African American migration to the North from the South.
Harlem Renaissance: a renewal and flourishing of African American literary, artistic, and musical culture during the years after World War I. Though it was concentrated in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, the movement expanded throughout northern cities with large African American populations.
Jacob Lawrence: (1917-2000) American artist known for his portrayal of African American life, including his epic “Great Migration” series.
James VanDerZee: (1886-1983) African American photographer, best known for his images of African American New Yorkers.
Jazz Age: a period during the 1920s before the Great Depression where Jazz music and associated dance styles became popular in the United States. The Jazz Age, which originated in New Orleans, Louisiana, glorified the new urban life that many Americans were now leading.
Jim Crow: state enforced segregation and disenfranchisement laws against African Americans; enacted after the Reconstruction era. The term ‘Jim Crow’ originated in vaudeville-type traveling stage plays where Jim Crow was an African American stock character, a stereotypically shiftless buffoon designed to elicit laughs with his dancing ability and avoidance of work.
Ku Klux Klan: founded in 1865, a post-Civil War secret society which advocates white supremacy and terrorizes minority groups, primarily African Americans.
Langston Hughes: (1902-1967) American poet, novelist, and playwright. His themes of African American life made him a leader of the Harlem Renaissance movement.
Marcus Garvey: (1887-1940) Leader of the Black Nationalist and Pan-Africanism movements, he founded the controversial Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which was dedicated to racial pride and the formation of an independent black nation in Africa.
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People: (NAACP) African-American civil rights organization, founded in 1909 to “ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination.”
National Urban League: a civil rights organization based in New York City, founded in 1910.
New Deal: (1933-1938) a series of domestic social programs and projects enacted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in an effort to combat the crippling effects of the Great Depression. These programs included immediate economic relief, as well as reforms in industry, agriculture, and labor.
Plessy v. Ferguson: an 1896 Supreme Court case which upheld the constitutionality of the “separate but equal” doctrine. The case stemmed from an 1892 incident in which Homer Plessy refused to sit in a Jim Crow car of a passenger train, breaking a Louisiana law. The Court rejected Plessy’s argument that his constitutional rights were violated, ruling that the state law that implies a legal distinction between whites and blacks did not conflict with the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The decision in Plessy v. Ferguson was not overturned until Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.
Roaring Twenties: a term used to describe Western culture in the 1920s – a period of great social and political change.
Romare Bearden: (1911-1988) African American artist best known for his brightly-colored collages and subjects of African American life.
Second Great Migration: (1941-1970) a term for the second wave of African American migration from the South to the North in the years during and after World War II.
sharecropping: a system in which freed blacks rented plots of land in return for giving a portion of their crop yield to the landowner (often their former master.)
subjugated: to have been made subordinate or inferior; having been subject to the dominion or power of someone else.
Triangular Trade: a pattern of commerce in the trans-Atlantic slave trade in which European textiles, rum, and manufactured goods were used to purchase African slaves; African slaves were sent to the West Indies and America to produce colonial exports; these exports (sugar, tobacco, and cotton) were shipped back to Europe.
unions: organized associations of workers designed to protect and further their rights and interests.
W.E.B. Du Bois: (1868-1963) African American civil rights activist, sociologist, and historian. He is best known for his role as co-founder of the NAACP and for his work The Souls of Black Folk – a seminal work in the history of sociology and African American literary history.
World War I: (1914-1918) a global war originating in Europe. The United States formally entered the war in 1917, after a German submarine sunk the New York-bound British passenger ship the Lusitania, killing 128 Americans. The attack turned American public opinion against immigrants, fueling a wave of xenophobia. As a result, immigration decreased and war-time industries were desperate to fill jobs normally occupied by immigrants. African Americans seized on this opportunity to escape the South, and thus began the Great Migration.
Zora Neale Hurston: (1891-1960) American novelist and short story writer, she was a pioneer of the Harlem Renaissance era, and is best remembered for her work Their Eyes Were Watching God.
U.S. History Content Standards Era 7 – Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)
- Standard 3A – The student understands social tensions and their consequences in the postwar era.
- 7-12 – Examine rising racial tensions, the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, and the emergence of Garveyism.
- 9-12 – Analyze how the emergence of the “New Woman” challenged Victorian values.
- Standard 3B – The student understands how a modern capitalist economy emerged in the 1920s.
- 5-12 – Explain how principles of scientific management and technological innovations, including assembly lines, rapid transit, household appliances, and radio, continued to transform production, work, and daily life.
- 7-12 – Examine the changes in the modern corporation, including labor policies and the advent of mass advertising and sales techniques.
- 9-12 – Analyze the new business downtowns, the development of suburbs, and the role of transportation in changing urban life.
- Standard 3C – The student understands how new cultural movements reflected and changed American society.
- 5-12 – Examine the contributions of artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance and assess their popularity.