One of the largest mass movements in American history took place almost under the radar. Over roughly two decades, beginning in 1915, as many as 2 million African Americans migrated from the rural South to Northern cities, a spontaneous eruption of people seeking freedom from the prison–legal, spiritual, psychological and at times literal–of Southern life. The Northern states would hardly turn out to be paradise, but anything was better than the empire of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan.
This great escape was powerfully commemorated by one of the singular projects of 20th century American art, The Migration Series, 60 paintings on wooden panels by Jacob Lawrence, an African-American artist who was just 23 when he began them in 1940. Two years later they were purchased jointly by the Phillips Collection in Washington and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, each taking 30. Now MOMA has reunited all 60 pictures and added related materials for a show, co-curated by Leah Dickerman, that closes Sept. 7. One year later, the full series will be reassembled for five months at the Phillips. Forget your high school reunion. This is the one to attend.
One source of inspiration for Lawrence’s series was the sequenced imagery of magazine photo essays. Another, maybe, was a much older model: predellas, the small storytelling paintings along the bottom of Renaissance altar screens. After all, Lawrence worked not in oils but tempera–a medium dating to that time.
For panel 10, They Were Very Poor, Lawrence–whose parents made the trek north–produced a stark emblem of sharecropper poverty. Working in Harlem, he spent months researching accounts of the exodus. His pictures reached a wide audience in 1941, when Fortune magazine published 26 of them with an essay denouncing the treatment of black Americans.
BENT BY GRIEF
Panel 16, portraying the aftermath of a lynching, shows Lawrence’s debt to Cubism. His series employs the dynamic lines, broad color fields and flattened imagery common to advanced paintings of the 1930s, yet its sparseness renders the migration timeless, the stuff of legend.
Panel 52 depicts a 1917 riot in East St. Louis, Ill., where some 10,000 African Americans had relocated. Some were hired by a local company to break a strike by unionized white workers. On July 1 the resulting tensions led to armed attacks on black neighborhoods that left dozens dead and caused more than 6,000 to flee the city.
This appears in the April 20, 2015 issue of TIME.