The Great Migration

Middle School, 6-8th grade/Visual Arts, Social Studies, U.S. History
Author: Newark Museum


Lesson Description

Jacob Lawrence’s 1940 Migration Series chronicles the massive African American exodus from the rural South to northern cities during and following World War I. Lawrence painted this series of sixty small gessoed panels with casein tempera paint and captioned each panel. In this lesson, after students study The Migration Series, they analyze Lawrence’s The Bo-Lo Game, 1937, a Harlem street scene of children playing with paddleballs, and consider how this scene relates to The Migration Series. Students write a narrative from the viewpoint of one of the figures in this street scene. They also read a letter describing the need to move North.  



At the end of this lesson, students will be able to:
  • Explain why African Americans left the South during the first half of the twentieth century.
  • Describe the new life African Americans found in northern cities. 
  • Explain how the Great Migration changed the United States.
  • Describe how Joseph{Jacob?} Lawrence kept colors consistent throughout all The Migration Series panels.
  • Analyze the composition of Lawrence’s The Bo-Lo Game and Panel 57 of The Migration Series.
  • Describe the relationship of the subject of the Harlem street scene in The Bo-Lo Game to The Migration Series.
  • Write an essay explaining the reasons for and the results of the Great Migration.


Learning Standards

Visual Arts Standards:
Grades 5–8 Content Standard 4
Understanding the visual arts in relation to history and cultures
Grades 5–8 Content Standard 4b
Students describe and place a variety of art objects in historical and cultural contexts
Grades 5–8 Content Standard 5b
Students analyze contemporary and historic meanings in specific artworks through cultural and aesthetic inquiry
Grades 5–8 Content Standard 6
Making connections between visual arts and other disciplines

Lesson Activies 

Activity: Moving North

Students learn the reasons that African Americans moved from the agricultural South to the industrial North via a primary source document. 
Distribute a copy of the letter from Mrs. J. H. Adams, Macon, Georgia, to the Bethlehem Baptist Association in Chicago, Illinois, 1919. (Holograph Carter G. Woodson Papers.) Ask students to figure out what she was asking for, why she wanted to leave the South, and what she hoped to hear back from Chicago.
Download full PDF lesson above to access Activity Worksheets

Activity : Living in the North

By comparing life for people in the North, featured in artworks, students will assess how it was both a struggle and rewarding. 
Show students the three different artworks. Each student should have a good view of the artwork either on a computer, a projection, or as printed color copies. Before discussing these paintings, have students study them silently. This allows them time to formulate initial impressions. 
Have students, either independently or as a group, answer the questions on the following worksheet.
Download full PDF lesson above to access Activity Worksheets



Activity: Matching Diary  Entry

Have students write an imaginary diary entry for a day in the life of an African American migrant living in a northern city. The students should include information about the job they do, what brought them to the North, if they are with family or alone, and how they are handling the change of locations.


Extending the Lesson

  • Have students observe the Newark Museum’s three dimensional image of a women’s hat. Ask the students to describe the woman who wore this hat. Was she in the southern or northern part of the United States, and what supports their answer? What was her typical day like? Why did she select this hat to bring with her on the journey North?
  • Have students read Jacob Lawrence’s introduction to his book The Great Migration. Have them discuss how Lawrence was related to the movement of African Americans from the South to the North. They may write how Lawrence’s childhood experiences led him to paint his Migration Series.
  • Jacob Lawrence (author and illustrator), The Great Migration: An American Story. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Phillips Collection, HarperCollins Publishers, 1993.


  • At online bookstore sites, you can preview the opening pages of The Great Migration book with Lawrence’s introduction, which describes how he created the series. 
  • Ask students to describe their family’s migration or immigration. If students themselves have not moved, they should ask older relatives or other members of the community about their ancestors’ migration within or immigration to the United States. Discuss why their families moved, what they hoped to find in their new homes, and their journey. Have students paint a series of at least three small paintings describing their family’s move or immigration. They could try Jacob Lawrence’s method of painting one color at a time in all three pictures. Like Lawrence, they should write captions that explain what they have depicted to display with each picture.
  • Have students watch a YouTube video of 1930s film clips of Harlem children playing games. Tell students to paint or draw games that city children played during the Great Depression


The Great Migration
As the flow of European immigrants dwindled in World War I, northern industries found another inexpensive source of labor in the African American workers from the rural South. Over the next fifteen years, more than ten percent of the African Americans in the South migrated North in search of a better life. Put another way, between 1900 and 1960, about five million black people migrated from the South. Most settled in northern industrial cities. 
Learn more about the Great Migration at 
In Motion, The African American Migration Experience
The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow
Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000)
The Bo-Lo Game, 1937
poster paint on pebbleboard
Purchase 1984 The Members’ Fund 
Jacob Lawrence’s parents had “moved up” from the rural South to Atlantic City, New Jersey, where he was born. When he was thirteen, his by-then single mother relocated her family to Harlem, in New York City. In 1930, the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing, as black artists, writers, and scholars flooded into this New York City neighborhood. Lawrence became immersed in this culture of talented artists. They mentored and encouraged him to pursue a career in art. Lawrence began painting scenes of his community, like The Bo-Lo Game, 1937. He had his first solo exhibition, in 1938, at the Harlem YMCA. In 1940, when he was twenty-two, he began painting The Migration Series. When it was displayed at the Downtown Gallery, he became the first African American artist to be represented by one of New York City’s major galleries. After serving in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II, he painted his War Series. One summer he taught at Black Mountain College, in North Carolina, where he met Joseph Albers, who encouraged him to teach. Eventually, he taught painting at the University of Washington, in Seattle.
Learn more at the Educators Resource Book, 17a, on the Picturing America website for further information and discussion ideas.
Picturing America Teachers Resource Book
Jacob Lawrence biography, American Art @ The Phillips Collection
The Migration of the Negro (1940–41)
The Migration Series—Negro Panel no. 57, 1940–41 
casein tempera on hardboard, 18 x 12 in.
The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. 
Jacob Lawrence's The Migration of the Negro (The Migration Series) is a series of sixty paintings that tells the story of the mass exodus of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North around the time of World War I and continuing throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Lawrence worked on the series for months, writing short captions and creating preliminary drawings. His wife, artist Gwendolyn Knight, helped him prepare the boards. He painted the scenes with water-based casein tempera, which dries quickly to a matte finish. By applying one color at a time to all the paintings, he was able to maintain consistent colors throughout all sixty boards. 
The Phillips Collection and New York's Museum of Modern Art each bought half the series. The Phillips has the odd-numbered paintings, and the Museum of Modern Art the even-numbered ones.
Learn more about Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration of the Negro at:
Jacob Lawrence: Over the Line 
An interactive biography of Jacob Lawrence’s life and art with teaching resources.
Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series
This colorful interactive site features all sixty paintings in The Migration Series with their captions. African American music adds to the excitement of this site. 
The Great Migration Series, by Jacob Lawrence (HUM225) 
This site lists all sixty paintings and captions with thumbnail links to larger images.
Today, the word bolo conjures up everything from computer games to military slang to some type of machete, but in the 1930s it referred to a children’s game. Children competed to see how many times in succession they could hit a rubber ball fastened to a small wooden paddle by a rubber band. A bolo was inexpensive enough for poor Harlem children to own.

Additional Resources

Selected EDSITEment Lesson Plans

Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series: Removing the Mask
African-American Soldiers After World War I: Had Race Relations Changed?
Romare Bearden's "The Dove"—A Meeting of Vision and Sound
An Introduction to the Relationship Between Composition and Content in the Visual Arts 

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication does not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Arts.