Prosperity from Sadness: Two Artists Depict The Great Migration
By Katherine Horner

The Great Migration, spanning from 1910-1930 (Tolnay and Beck), proved to be a period of sadness for many Southern African-Americans. Due to a society which refused to accept blacks in an equal manner, in which lynching still occurred (Tolnay and Beck), Jim Crow laws were heavily enforced, and many blacks experienced "an ever tightening cycle of debt" (Crew, 35) many, specifically male, African-Americans moved northward away from their friends and families. However, these people migrated northward not only to escape the horrible treatment that they received in the South, but also to attain a more promising future about which friends who moved north had written them (DeSantis). People whom had already migrated northward wrote home of their success, informing others of the numerous jobs available in the North, mostly for unskilled laborers (Tolnay, 489), and the open opportunity to receive a higher education (Crew, 36). As these people moved to large industrial northern cities, such as St. Louis and Chicago, much inner emotional conflict occurred. Rose Piper and Jacob Lawrence both illustrate this time of heartache and unhappiness for African-Americans through their paintings Slow Down Freight Train, done in 1946, and No. 17: During the World War there was a Great Migration North by Southern Negroes, done in 1940, respectively (St. James). Yet Piper delves deeper into the actual inner conflict of those who migrated northward, she expresses not only their anguish and sadness for having to leave their homes, but also the African-Americans' hope for a better and brighter future.

In Slow Down Freight Train, Piper implements an unusual color scheme in order to express the longing and sadness felt by migrating African-Americans for their homes and families. Using a deep forest green to color the rolling hills, Piper provokes thoughts of a healthy and comforting land. Above these hills from which the freight train speeds away, hangs an, oddly colored, soft lime green sky. Much like the green color of the hills, the manís skin is dark green. Piper purposefully uses green as a base color in order to connect the sky and the earth with the man crouched at the edge of the freight car. Through this abstract coloring, Piper demonstrates the extent to which the man in the freight train feels connected with his southern surroundings. Through this coloring choice Piper implies that the man feels a deep sense of loss because he is leaving his home and family, to which he is intensely connected.

In a similar fashion, Jacob Lawrence uses colors to convey a feeling of loss and sadness. A soulful blue appears as the dominant color in No. 17: During the World War there was a Great Migration North by Southern Negroes, for he has clothed the majority of the 'migrating' figures in his piece in blue. Lawrence effectively expresses the migrating African-Americans' inner sadness and feelings of loss, in an outward manner.

Piper also uses a very strong vibrant red to color the central figure's shirt in Slow Down Freight Train. Possibly the most visibly bold color in the entire piece, Piper uses it to convey a sense of strength and perseverance. Piper shows that although the man in the train is forced to leave his home, he remains strong. Lawrence also implements the color red as a means through which to convey the community's strength, yet he chooses a dull shade. Lacking the vibrancy of the red in Piper's piece, Lawrence's attempt at demonstrating a community's vigor falls short, giving the impression of the community's repressed, untapped strength.

As a contrast between sadness and a hopeful future Piper draws a distinct line of shading diagonally through the painting separating the light from the dark. She uses sunlight to illuminate the majority of the picture. Although darkness encompasses some of the man inside the freight car, his upturned face and one leg are clearly lit by sunshine. Piper uses this light to symbolize the manís hope for his future. Through combination of the manís slightly opened mouth, and the sun shining on his upturned face Piper shows that he has found hope and strength even when faced with such a difficult situation. Finally, Piper fully demonstrates the manís strength when she shows him Ďstep into their futureí by having one leg highlighted by the sun.

Lawrence, however, uses very little light to brighten up his painting. In fact, the majority of the piece is encompassed in a rather dim and depressing light. He easily communicates general feelings of sadness emanating from the crowd of travelers. These depressed figures move about in a dreary manner, upset over their departure, or that of their loved ones. The only significant sign of light surrounds the three signs that mark the trainsí destinations: "Chicago, New York and St. Louis". So, in fact, Lawrence does show that these northern destinations may possibly hold the key to the African-American populationís future.

Positioning also plays an important role in how Piper conveys sentiments of sadness and strength. She depicts the man kneeling at the edge of the freight car, grasping tightly with one hand at the edge of the carís open door. His tightly clutching hand symbolizes him holding on to his past, his home, and his family. His head tilts upwards towards the sky, with his mouth slightly open almost as though he has been frozen in the midst of crying in sadness. In addition to his facial expression his kneeling position almost suggests that he has been defeated, beat down by a force stronger and more overpowering than himself. Through this, in combination with the manís upturned face, Piper conveys a feeling of deep, soulful angst.

Lawrence also conveys a deep seeded feeling of depression through the use of similar techniques as Piper. Lawrence depicts every single character in the train station as looking downwards, causing them to appear ashamed or depressed. Lawrenceís figures appear to almost accept their sadness, unlike the man in the train car who seems to work against his angst, determined to reach a better place.

Taking it a step further Piper depicts the man asking God for the strength to continue, for the strength to accept his future. His upturned face symbolizes prayer, showing hope for the future. Unlike the people Lawrence depicts, Rose Piperís man in the freight train exhibits his willpower to hold on until a brighter future arises.

During a time when African-Americans were steadily heading northward, families were being split apart in order for one family member to Ďmove on upí. It was a period of deep seeded sadness, when mothers watched their sons get on a train for a place they really knew nothing about. Such dark, sad feelings are what Jacob Lawrence depicts in No. 17: During the World War there was a Great Migration North by Southern Negroes. He shows the utter sadness involved in The Great Migration, whereas Rose Piper takes the initiative to not just portray the melancholy feelings surrounding The Great Migration. Piper takes interpretation a step further showing the hope and promise that the future seemed to hold for many strong, young African-Americans. Piper depicts a person who accepts the hardships of the past and embraces their future. As Spencer R. Crew said, "The South appeared to hold their [African-Americansí] hearts, but the North held their futures" (38).

Works Cited

Ackland Art Museum. "Rose Piper: Slow Down Freight Train." Chapel Hill. Online.

Crew, Spencer R. "The Great Migration of Afro-Americans, 1915-40." Monthly Labor Review 110 (1987): 34.

DeSantis, Alan D. "Selling the American Dream to Black Southerners: The Chicago ĎDefenderí and the Great Migration of 1915-1919." Western Journal of Communications 62 (1998): 474.

Lawrence, Jacob. No. 17: During the World War there was a Great Migration North by Southern Negroes. In Ellen Harkins' Jacob Lawrence: American Painter. Seattle: University of Washington, 1986.

Piper, Rose. Slow Down Freight Train. Ackland Art Museum, Chapel Hill.

St. James Press. St. James Guide to Black Artists. Detroit: St James Press, 1997.

Tolnay, Stewart E. "Educational Selection in the Migration of Southern Blacks." Social Forces 77 (1998): 487-514.

Tolnay, Stewart E., and Beck, E.M. "Racial Violence and Black migration in the American South, 1910 to 1930." American Sociological Review 57 (1992): 103-114.

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Copyright 1999