Lawrence painted not just what he saw, but also what he heard from Harlem’s oral historians. He became interested in African and African-American history and culture and researched and chronicled the lives of Toussaint L'Ouverture, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and John Brown. His narratives were created on small, identically sized panels with accompanying texts.
The Migration Series was exhibited at Edith Halpert's Downtown Gallery and in 1942 began a two-year national tour. As the first African American to join Edith Halpert's Downtown Gallery, Lawrence found himself living in two different worlds. For the rest of his life he would struggle between his experiences as an African American and his acceptance in the white art community.
The experience of creating historical works in a series format led Lawrence to make discrete images that functioned as thematic groupings. Between 1942 and 1943 he made a group of thirty paintings that again focused on life in Harlem. His themes included black working women, health concerns, leisure time, and the role of religion and spirituality in people's daily lives. In these works, Lawrence portrayed the community in bold colors, repeating patterns, and asymmetrical compositions. He also incorporated the rhythms, breaks, and changes of jazz music into his visual representations of the Harlem environment.
In 1942 Lawrence was drafted into the United States Coast Guard as a Stewards Mate, the only rank then available for black Americans. He was stationed in St. Augustine, Florida. Lawrence served one year in a segregated regiment. In 1944 he was reassigned first to a weather ship in Boston, and then to a troopship, where he served as Coast Guard Artist, documenting the experience of war in Italy, England, Egypt, and India. While he was on the troopship, he produced about forty-eight paintings (now lost) documenting the lives of men in World War II. These works are now lost. After his tour of duty ended in 1946, Lawrence received a Guggenheim Fellowship that enabled him to paint his War Series.
©2002 Whitney Museum of American Art