1954: Jacob Lawrence was a public relations specialist, Third Class in the U.S. Coast Guard. He is shown at an exhibit of his paintings at the Museum of Modern Art. (AFRO Archive)
By Sean Yoes
AFRO Senior Reporter
The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., exhibited the Jacob Lawrence series, Struggle: From the History of the American People last year from January 2020, to August 2020. “Struggle,” which the legendary Lawrence completed in 1956, consisted of 30 individual panels and was originally going to depict the Black American struggle. But, ultimately Lawrence decided the series would be illustrative of the broader American struggle, inclusive of many experiences, and prominently that of Black Americans.
It was the first time “Struggle” had been exhibited and Peabody’s presentation introduced Lawrence, one of the most important American artists of the 20th century to a whole new generation. The 21st century showing of Lawrence is indicative of just how vital and relevant this American art master still is.
Lawrence was born Sept. 7, 1917, in Atlantic City, N.J. the oldest child of Jacob and Rosa Lee Lawrence. His father worked as a railroad cook and in 1919, he moved the family to Easton, Penn., where he sought work as a coal miner. After his mother and father separated when he was seven, his mother moved young Jacob and his siblings to Philadelphia in 1924. Then they moved to Harlem when Lawrence was 12.
When he enrolled at Public School 89 at 135th and Lenox Avenue, he also was enrolled at the Utopia Children’s Center on 129th Street, which provided an afterschool arts and crafts program for Harlem children. That’s where Lawrence began to explore drawing simple geometric patterns and some painting. Utopia was operated by the painter and sculptor Charles Alston, a noted artist of the Harlem Renaissance, who quickly recognized Lawrence’s talent. Alston was also the first Black supervisor of the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) Federal Art Project. After he graduated from P.S. 89, Lawrence enrolled in Commerce High School on West 65th Street where he continued to paint. However, as the Great Depression deepened his mother lost her job and Lawrence dropped out of high school before he began his junior year to help bring money into the household.
However, a confluence of events over the next few years would fully immerse the young artist into the art and culture of the vanguard Harlem Renaissance and he would ultimately emerge as arguably the leading artist of that Movement.
He enrolled in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), part of President Theodore Roosevelt’s New Deal jobs program. Lawrence was sent to upstate New York where he planted trees and worked on various infrastructure projects. After his stint with the CCC, Lawrence returned to Harlem and connected to the Harlem Community Art Center, which was directed by Augusta Savage, the famed expatriate sculptor who returned to the United States in the early 1930s. During his time at the Harlem Community Art Center Lawrence began painting his earliest Harlem scenes. Yet, his time was not confined to the art center, Lawrence loved to shoot pool at the Harlem YMCA, and that’s where he met “Professor” Charles Seifert, an intellectual and historian, who collected a large library of Black American literature. He encouraged Lawrence to dig deep into Black history and culture and opened his personal library to him. Around this time Augusta Savage pushed for Lawrence to be assigned to an easel project with the WPA, where Charles Alston of the Utopia Center was a supervisor.
As he continued to immerse himself into the history of his people Lawrence became fascinated with the life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Black revolutionary founder of the Republic of Haiti. He decided to produce a series of paintings to capture the life and accomplishments of L’Ouverture instead of attempting to squeeze the larger than life general into one painting.
The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, 40 panels produced in 1937, was the beginning of Lawrence’s prodigious work over the next decade depicting the Black American experience. In 1938, Lawrence produced 40 images of The Life of Frederick Douglass. In 1939, there were 31 images of The Life of Harriet Tubman. From 1940 to 1941, Lawrence created perhaps his most famous series 60 images chronicling The Migration of the Negro. Also in 1941, Lawrence created 20 panels dedicated to The Life of John Brown. In 1942, the young artist honored perhaps his most influential muse with 30 images of Harlem. From 1946 to 1947, Lawrence’s commentary on the just concluded World War II was conveyed in 14 images in the series War. Also in 1947, he produced 10 panels in the series The South.
There were more remarkable series created by Lawrence over the years. But, perhaps it was his incomparable work from 1937 to 1947 that cemented Lawrence’s legacy as one of the most critically acclaimed American artists of the 20th century and arguably the most celebrated Black American artist in history.