Harlem on My Mind: Jacob Lawrence
Trymaine Lee: There are just a few artists whose work I recognize immediately. One of them is Jacob Lawrence. His color palette, reds and blues and yellows, the geometry in his brushstrokes, but mostly it's his subject matter. Lawrence captures Black people and Black life in a way that just feels so familiar.
Pushing a stroller, talking to a neighbor, riding the bus. He's not gazing down on us from up high, he's right there with us, whether it's back in the Deep South, or in the streets of Harlem that raised him, Lawrence sees us. I'm a novice collector of books and ephemera and art that speaks to and about the Black experience.
And I'd always dreamed of a day that I get my hands on an original piece of Lawrence's work, and that day finally came, y'all. A couple months back, I stumbled onto an online auction and there it was, with that palette and those strokes that I know so well.
It was assigned a numbered print, number 181 out of 200 of Lawrence's 1986 Schomburg Library. I'd seen this image dozens of times. It shows an ordinary day at the famed Schomburg Library in Manhattan. Over the years I've spent many years in that same library, doing research for stories, catching book readings, talks, and performances.
It's a really special place. And this print, it's bursting with the energy and chaos of a public library, painted in Lawrence's signature style, slightly abstract, with folks poring over literature, young, old, couples, Black, and beautiful.
So the day of the auction, I'm sitting there and I set my max price, and I watch bid after bid after bid after bid, until it was mine. (LAUGH) For the week or so it took me to finally pick it up, all I could see was that scene from the Schomburg.
But there's something else about this print, my print, something I'd never seen on a piece before. Between the title and Lawrence's signature, there's a hand-signed dedication. It says, "To Abram Hill." Until I saw his name, I'll be honest, I had never heard of him.
Turns out he has a legacy of his own. And that made me want to learn more. How did Lawrence and Hill's paths cross in Harlem? Was it at the Schomburg? And what about the Black man whose namesake hangs on that place? I kept stumbling over these spaces and Black figures, some of them we know, others not so much, who went on to explore and expand Black identity at the start of the 20th century.
I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Throughout Black History Month we're bringing you a series we're calling Harlem on My Mind. It's an exploration of how Harlem gave rise to these men and women who defined Blackness for themselves, and what it means to be Black in America today. We'll tell the stories of four figures over the next four weeks. And today, part one. We begin with the man who started this quest of mine, Jacob Lawrence. To understand Mr. Lawrence, we have to go back in time.
Dr. Leslie King-hammond: Oh my god, it was a hotbed of energy.
Lee: Dr. Leslie King-Hammond didn't live through the Harlem Renaissance, but you wouldn't know it from talking to her.
King-hammond: I doubt that people slept very much because of the very different lifestyle it created for African Americans and all Black people who had migrated from the South, from the Caribbean, from Africa, to seek a better lifestyle. Now they're in a city and there are horns.
And there are fire engines, and there are taxis, and there are cars, and there are people in the street, and children playing in the street, and people laughing, people yelling, all kinds of sensory activity. This was a space that was just charged with electric living cycles of all kinds, converging, simultaneously. It was a cacophony.
Lee: Leslie is the founding director of the Center for Race and Culture at the Maryland Institute College of Art. She's a leading expert on Jacob Lawrence, and the two were friends. Leslie has also spent decades studying Harlem during the 1920s and '30s when this one and a half square mile neighborhood grew into one of the cultural epicenters of the world.
King-hammond: Harlem became a safe place. Harlem became a space of inspiration, of resources, of possibilities, and opportunities that they never could have dreamed of or acquired in the places that they left.
Lee: They left as part of the Great Migration. After Reconstruction, Black people faced the constant threat of deadly racial violence. White Southerners also passed racist laws designed to keep Black people poor and disenfranchised. So Black families went north, looking for a better life.
The Great Migration stretched from 1910 to 1970. In that time, around six million Black people moved from mostly rural areas in the South to urban centers in the North. And many settled in Harlem. When we think of Harlem, does Harlem exist without the Great Migration and the migration of all those folks from the South?
King-hammond: No. Harlem was defined, Harlem came to be a place of reckoning for the world. It was very difficult for Black people to pursue their aesthetic sensibilities within the small towns and rural cultures that they came from. They needed to be in a place where the synergies of other like-minded individuals who were experimenting and seeking the possibilities of what a new form of expression could be.
These were, in fact, the new Negroes. They were new people. America had never seen anything like this. America was not prepared for this. America was too busy suppressing them. There was no way the Great Migration could not have impacted Jacob Lawrence, and ultimately gave rise to his Migration Series.
Lee: In fact, Jacob Lawrence said as much. Here he is in a 1993 interview with The Phillips Collection Museum in Washington D.C.
Jacob Lawrence: At the very beginning of my understanding of communication with words, I was very much aware of this movement which took place, starting right after World War II and continuing on through the late '30s.
Lee: Before Jacob Lawrence became one of the most famous artists of the 20th century, he himself was just another child of the Great Migration. His father was from South Carolina and his mother from Virginia. They moved north after getting married, and Jacob was born in New Jersey after 1917.
Lawrence: So there's a paradox here, being close and yet far away. Because my culture, although it's Northern, urban Northern, is Southern, because my background, my family's background, the friends of my family, were all Southern in culture. Food, everything else.
Lee: Jacob's parents separated in 1924.
King-hammond: So the mother left Jacob and his two siblings, a brother and a sister, in foster care, while she moved into New York, into Harlem, worked to save enough money, and then moved her family into Harlem.
Lee: The Harlem Renaissance was in full swing.
King-hammond: First of all, you know, 13 year olds suffer from raging hormones, okay? And so (LAUGH) everything was of excitement to him, okay? The people, the streets, the colors, the movement, the sounds. There was nothing that was not a possibility for exploration, experimentation, excitement. But Jacob Lawrence's mother, knowing her child and being the mother that she was, said, "Okay, but I'm gonna put you in these after school programs."
Lawrence: I started going there after school at the expense of my own schoolwork. I was anxious to get there.
Lee: At these after school art classes, Jacob began to attract attention from artists in the community. Here's Jacob again, talking about those programs, this time in a 1993 interview with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, known as LACMA.
Lawrence: It's only in retrospect that you realize how much this meant to our lives and to our development. And I think Harlem generally was a community of hope.
Lee: By the time he turned 16, he had dropped out of school, was working odd jobs, and taking classes with two of Harlem's great artists of the period, painter Charles Austin and sculptor Augusta Savage. But they didn't force their artistic sensibilities with him. That just wasn't the Harlem way.
King-hammond: Jacob had special talent. Jacob was aware beyond the youthfulness of his years. He was an old spirit. And so no, they didn't teach him. They didn't teach him how to draw. What they did was is they nurtured and they mentored him. And they gave him tools and materials and showed him techniques so that he could figure out how he wanted to express what he was seeing, what he was living, and what he had experienced.
Charles Austin, he had a studio up at 306, I think it was West 143rd Street. And it became a mecca. It was the hot place to be. It was the place where artists hung out. Charles Austin would say, "Come on Jake, you know we're gonna be gettin' together over at my studio, come on over later." Jake said, "I would go." He said, "I would sit there." He said, "I would listen." He said, "I was so young," he said, "Many times I didn't even know what they were talking about."
Lee: Wow, (LAUGH) right.
King-hammond: He said, "But I sat there and I listened." So that tells you something about what was happening to his consciousness, how he was being nurtured in a way where, if he had gone to college, that would impart that kind of information for high tuition. Jacob Lawrence was sitting in the living rooms of the University of Harlem.
Lee: Sculptor Augusta Savage got Jacob a job with the Federal Art Project when he turned 18. The year was 1935, and the program was part of the New Deal's Works Progress Administration, the WPA, where the government injected money into the economy during the Great Depression. Jacob was paid to paint.
King-hammond: This is how intense the creative spirit was in that community, and this is how much they recognized and believed in each other, and how they all worked towards a common goal. Jacob Lawrence was a jewel.
Lee: Jacob repaid the support by painting the place he called home.
King-hammond: As Jacob began to exhibit first in the Harlem community, at the YMCA, at the Schomburg, even on the street corner, on sidewalk shows, and in lots, open lots, they would have exhibitions. The first people who supported Jacob Lawrence were teachers, local workers, laundry seamstresses. All of the people who were the subjects of his work.
Lawrence: I can never give the community enough credit for the encouragement that it gave me. The teachers who purchased some of my works, the librarians, for very, very little. You think in terms of almost giving it away. But that $5 or $10 that they would pay for a small work meant more than the $5 or $10. It was the idea of you're doing something of worth that somebody else wants.
Lee: In addition to helping Jacob get his first job, Augusta Savage also introduced him to his future wife, fellow artist Gwendolyn Knight. Leslie says their love was the talk of the town.
King-hammond: They are a phenomenon, if not a paradox, if not an enigma. She was an artist in her own right, and at times she was a collaborator with him, helping him with his series, working with him, protecting his reputation, his image, and everything that she understood innately about the impact of his work in the larger art world.
Gwendolyn Knight: Don't downplay yourself.
Lawrence: I wouldn't do that. (LAUGH) No, that's true. I didn't.
Lee: Here's Gwen and Jacob together in an interview with LACMA.
Knight: No, (UNINTEL) love you. You might have not thought of yourself as an ambassador, but I think you were pleased that, for instance, the society would ask you to show your paintings to people who were your ancestors in many ways, you know, so.
Lawrence: Yeah, well, that's true.
King-hammond: She was brilliant. She was not to be missed. She was like a Michelle Obama, brilliant, beautiful, focused, determined, quiet. But you didn't wanna mess with her, okay? Only a fool would do that.
Lee: The two were married in 1941, and that same year everything changed. Jacob Lawrence unveiled his Migration Series, 60 panels, each 12 by 18 inches, painted mostly in primary colors, telling the story of the Great Migration from the South. It was Harlem's story. It was his story. The series was an instant sensation, and Jacob became a sensation too. He was just 23 years old.
King-hammond: No other Black artist had ever had such recognition. He was in Life Magazine. He was picked up by a gallery. He is a puppy. In the art world, that's a puppy, okay? That's barely somebody who's coming out of their third or fourth year of college.
Lee: Can you actually describe his work?
King-hammond: He tended to love primary colors, all of the basics. Yellow, red, blue, then there was white. Sometimes a little green. But red was a color that he used to kinda, like, evoke emotion, tension. So he didn't use it, you understand, rampantly. He used it with deliberation.
Lawrence: I wanted to create a work that was very sparse, very, you'd see it immediately, the dark, the light, the values, very high in contrast. The warmth of the red, it could be a bus, it could be a train, and it's a long, arduous ride from where these people came.
King-hammond: So in The Migration Series, some of the panels have lots of people in them. And they're moving. And so you'll see train tracks, which are telling you, "These people are going to a train station." And then Jacob Lawrence will have a scene of a Black person sitting down, cowering.
And over his head, to the right, will be a tree, very stark, no branches, no signs of life on the tree, which is giving you the message that this is not a healthy, happy scene. And from that tree hangs a noose. His messages and his way of paring down the story to the essential components so that even a five year old can figure out what was going on. And the workers, the workers, he loved the workers.
Lawrence: Well, it's a symbol. And I like tools. I use tools as a painter doing a still life would use fruits and vegetables and flora in a still life.
Lee: This is from a 1993 TODAY Show interview.
Lawrence: I think tools are beautiful. And I use them, the people that handle tools, they use it like a dance. And, you know, the tool is so perfect. It hasn't changed over 300 or 400 years, the hand tool. It's exactly the same.
King-hammond: Jacob said, "Don't listen to anything that they have said about me. I wasn't a social realist. No, I wasn't informed by cubism. I knew about Picasso. I knew about all these modernist painters. I was working on Harlem. I was working on Black people. I was working on the history."
Lee: Jacob Lawrence already had the respect of the Harlem community, and after The Great Migration Series debuted, there was also this veneer of respect from white gatekeepers in the art world. But when Jacob sought a full professorship in New York and the financial security that came with it, he couldn't get one.
King-hammond: No university offered him a position.
Lee: Which sounds crazy, right? Like, how--
King-hammond: Totally. (LAUGH) Totally. After his works, now, you know, The Migration Series, here's how insane it was. Here's this young man, 22, 23 years old, paints this series, 60 panels that tell the entire history of African Americans during the Great Migration, okay?
Two major museums, the Museum of Modern Art and the Phillips Collection get into an argument about buying the series, okay? Each one wants to buy it. So in order to resolve it, they split the series in odd and even number panels. Back in the '40s, unbelievable. In the middle of New York, and the Phillips Collection is in D.C., all right? However, no university in D.C. and no university in New York ever offered him a position.
Lee: So he left. But it wasn't a clean break.
King-hammond: Harlem could never leave him. He is Harlem.
Lee: Coming up, Jacob Lawrence heads west and helps mold generations of Black artists that would follow him. Stick with us.
Lee: We're back. When we left off, Jacob and Gwen had packed up their apartment and left Harlem. It was 1971, and Jacob had accepted a full tenured position at the University of Washington in Seattle. That's when the staff brought him to meet a 19-year-old undergrad, Barbara Earl Thomas.
Barbara Earl Thomas: I knew he wasn't from Seattle, because he seemed to be dressed better than most people from Seattle. And they said, "Barbara, we'd like to introduce you to our newest professor. This is Jacob Lawrence." (LAUGH) I didn't know who he was. Didn't know--
Lee: You had, like, zero clue. You, like--
Earl Thomas: No, zero. (LAUGH) No, it's just a nice professor, and it was the '70s. It was during a time when they were really agitating at the university to get professor, educator, administrator representation. And he was part of that.
Lee: When she finally caught on to who Jacob was, she marched right into his office.
Earl Thomas: And I looked at him and I said, "You've been holding out on me." (LAUGH)
Earl Thomas: He said, "Barbara, what do you mean?" I said, "You're famous, and now I know it." I watched people just get totally overexcited when they'd see him. So I'd look at him and I'd look at them and I'd go, like, "What are they seeing?" But I wasn't seeing him through their eyes. I wasn't seeing him as a historical figure. I was seeing him as this person in my life.
Lee: Barbara and Jacob and Jacob's wife, Gwen, became close. New Yorkers through and through, they didn't drive. So Barbara would drive them to the grocery store or to run errands. She even took them out on the town.
Earl Thomas: Every now and then I'd say, "Well, let's go on a date." I said, "Sweet Honey in the Rock is gonna be here, I'm gonna take you on a date." And they said, "What is that?" I said, "Well, I'm gonna take you." And so I'd go pick them up and we would go and, you know, just hang out. Then I'd take them home. And there didn't seem to be overly special about what I was doing, except it just seemed like the thing I was supposed to do, so it's what I did.
Lee: Barbara saw that the burden of fame sometimes weighed on Jacob.
Earl Thomas: He always said, "You know, I was not the only really talented person in that city. There are many talented people." And he said, but he was the one that got selected. And I think there was a lot of pressure from being the one. And, you know, he carried it with grace. But I think he was fragile in certain kinds of ways that he was aware of. And so he operated in his lane, where his strength was, and that was making his work.
Lee: Was he a good professor? A hard professor? Was he, like, soft, nurturing hands? Was he, like, just on you? Like, what kind of professor was he?
Earl Thomas: I think, I mean, I can only imagine that Jacob gave to his students what he got. He never raised his voice. He was a very incredibly skilled draftsperson, and anybody who worked with him, even briefly, got that right away. He could see that there were some things that I was pretty good at.
And he could see that I kinda was going somewhere. And so he just, you know, would gently say, "You know, you might wanna try that. You might wanna do that." And so that was where I developed my iconography, looking at the way he did it and going, "Okay, so if I'm doing that, what do my shapes look like? And how can I define that and tell the story with that?" His goal was to always help the person he was working with be the best of what they were trying to be. Not to make them into some small echo of Jacob. And that, I think, was his greatest gift to me.
Lee: If that sounds familiar, it's the same kind of relationship that Jacob had with Black artists who came before him in Harlem. People like Charles Austin and Augusta Savage. Forty years later, and thousands of miles from where he got his start, Jacob Lawrence recreated the energy of the place that helped to define him.
Barbara Earl Thomas is the third generation in this line of Black creators. Her style is nothing like Jacob's. Today she's a visual artist who works with mostly really large, intricate cutouts, some multi color, others black and white. But like Jacob, her art tells stories that center Blackness. It's part of Jacob's legacy, and Harlem's legacy.
Earl Thomas: There was one moment when we were doing this show in the mid-'80s, we were going back and forth about is it gonna be Jacob Lawrence, African American painter, or Black painter? Or is it gonna be Jacob Lawrence, American painter? And we finally settled on Jacob Lawrence, American painter.
Because he not only told the story of African Americans and Black people, but he told part of history so that everyone could look at that work and say, "These are the things that we didn't know. These are the things that are also part of the American experience, American history, that we don't know, that belong to us in a way that have made us who we are, but that has been absented from history."
Lee: This idea that Black history is somehow separate from American history, as if our experience was siloed somehow, as opposed to a direct reaction, response, intertwined, tangled, right?
Earl Thomas: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).
Lee: Born from the same soil, reaching towards this sun.
Earl Thomas: Yes.
Lee: The entire thing is connected. And Jacob Lawrence's work speaks to that.
Bryant Gumbel: Your work is known for its social message, capturing the essence of race relations in this country. How much are you disappointed that so much of what you've documented for so very long still winds up a reality in modern day America?
Lee: Here is more of that 1993 interview with Jacob on the TODAY Show?
Lawrence: How? I'm not disappointed. You know, I'm 76 years of age now, and I've really seen some, you'd have to go back 50, 60 years to really see what has developed, people in general, how we have developed as people, the capacity of people to benefit from each other, and then being sort of in contact with each other. So (UNINTEL) I feel optimistic about things.
Lee: As Jacob and Gwen grew older, they missed Harlem and returned as often as they could. But they told Barbara their old home was different now.
Earl Thomas: New York had changed in a way that, you know, friends had died, and the places, what they would've gone back to was not the thing that they were remembering at that point. But every conversation he ever had, you know, "We're going back, we're going back."
Lee: But they never got the chance to move back. Jacob got sick and he died in Seattle in 2000, when he was 82 years old. Barbara cared for Gwen, and five years later, she too died. Barbara kept their ashes on her mantle.
Earl Thomas: I think it was around, oh, maybe eight or nine months, I sat up and I said, "It's time for them to go back to New York." And so I called St. John the Divine and, you know, some people in New York. I said, "I'm gonna bring Gwen and Jake's ashes back."
I had some friends here who also were really great supporters, loved Gwen and Jake. And they said, "Well, you're not going alone." And I said, "Okay." So then everybody kept saying, they said, "Well, can't you just ship the ashes back?" I said, "Now, that would untoward."
I (LAUGH) said, "That would just not be good. Gwen would not put up with that." So I said, "Well, what you have to do, you take Gwen, and I'll take Jacob, and we never let them out of our site until we get to St. John the Divine." And so we took them there. And then we had a thing, you know? Ed Bradley spoke, and lots of people spoke. And then I left them there. And so they made it back.
Lee: It's funny, I'm looking at my Jacob Lawrence print now, and I'm just seeing it in an entirely new way, knowing now just how much Jacob did to help define the Black American experience as the American experience. But I've still got questions. The first one is about the figure Jacob Lawrence inscribed my print to, Abram Hill. A quick Google search will tell you that he's a playwright, but I wanted to know more about that backstory and what their relationship may have been. So I asked Barbara about this.
Earl Thomas: Well, I wish I could, you know, demystify that for you, but I really, I just don't know those things.
Lee: And what about the subject, the print I have, Schomburg Library was part of what Jacob Lawrence called The Library Series. I asked Dr. Leslie King-Hammond about this. Do you have a sense of the story behind these particular paintings?
King-hammond: What, do you mean the Schomburg painting, or the--
Lee: Yes ma'am, yes ma'am.
King-hammond: The story is, is that that's where he grew up. And Jacob was always there. So much of this could not have happened without the presence of the Schomburg Library. It validated everything that Black people needed to know about who they were from the past, the present, and pointing towards the future. You're damn lucky to have the print. (LAUGHTER) You lucked out. You lucked out.
Lee: Jacob and Gwen now rest fewer than two miles away from this place that today still stands and is home to books and lectures and history, my history, and America's history. Places like this don't just happen on accident, they're made. So next week, as we continue our series Harlem on My Mind, we meet the man behind it all, Arturo Schomburg.
Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Special thanks to the Phillips Collection, the Washington D.C. Humanities Commission, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. To see a photo of my Jacob Lawrence print and a picture of Barbara Earl Thomas with Jacob Lawrence and Gwen Knight, go to our website, MSNBC.com/IntoAmerica. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back next Thursday.