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The Migration Series
His Painting Method

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Race riots were very numerous all over the North because of the antagonism that was caused between the Negro and white workers. Many of these riots occurred because the Negro was used as a strike breaker in many of the Northern industries.

The Migration of the Negro, panel 50, 1940-41. Casein tempera on hardboard 18 x 12 in. (45.7 x 30.5 cm), The Museum of Modern Art, New York; gift of Mrs. David M. Levy
Artwork © Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, courtesy of the Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation
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Many white workers in the North feared the competition for jobs that was created by the migration of blacks from the South. Not only did black workers compete against white workers for jobs on a day-to-day basis, but blacks were often used as strikebreakers during strikes organized by white labor unions. In some cases, blacks did not realize that they were being brought in as strikebreaker,s and would sometimes quit upon learning the circumstances. In other cases, blacks were so desperate for work that they deliberately chose to migrate to certain cities where they knew they could be hired as strikebreakers.

In 1917, when an aluminum plant in East St. Louis hired black workers during a strike, white workers rioted, terrorizing blacks on the street and setting fire to black homes. Racial antagonisms, resulting indirectly from the labor competition caused by the Great Migration, continued to cause riots throughout the country during what was known as the  "Red Summer" of 1919.

In this painting, Jacob Lawrence pared down the composition and used diagonal shapes and movements to heighten the impression of action and create a powerful visual statement. Lawrence also emphasized the central figure's physical gesture by stretching his arms across the picture plane, partially blocking visual access into the scene.
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• What is a riot?

Find out if anyone in your family has been in a riot, a demonstration, or a strike. Interview them about their memories of this experience. Even if they were not directly involved in such an incident, they will probably have memories of a notorious riot or strike. After conducting your interview, share it with your classmates. Are there differing accounts of specific strikes or riots? What might account for these differences?

©2002 Whitney Museum of American Art