Jacob Lawrence was born in 1917. His parents had just moved from the south to the north in a huge African-American migration that was going on at the time. The families who picked up their belongings and journeyed across the U.S. were looking for better lives. It was difficult for African-Americans to find work in the south and Lawrence’s parents hoped it would be different in the north.
The family moved around a lot and finally settled in Harlem, New York. Lawrence’s father left the young family so Lawrence lived in the apartment with his mother, brother, and sister. In Harlem, the family lived in a tall apartment building surrounded by other tall apartment buildings. Their neighbors were all African-Americans.
Lawrence did not do well in school. He was bored and frustrated that he only learned about white heroes. His mother signed him up for an after school program and the things he learned there changed his life.
At the after school program, Lawrence began to draw, color, and paint. By experimenting, Lawrence taught himself to paint. He also learned about some important black heroes, including Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas.
Lawrence’s family never had enough money and Lawrence had to drop out of school to get a job. When he was working he didn’t have time to paint but he longed to create.
When he was 21, Lawrence worked on the Easel Program which paid him to paint. During this time he began painting series. He wanted his paintings to tell a story. He painted a series which told the story of Harriet Tubman. He painted another that told Frederick Douglas’ story. He also painted a series about the African-American migration which his parents took part in. Click here to see some of the panels from the migration series. Lawrence’s series brought him fame. Suddenly painting paid the bills and more.
Lawrence created paintings about everything he saw. He served in the Navy during World War II and painted images of daily life. When he checked himself into a mental institution he painted pictures of other patients.
In his old age, Lawrence moved to Seattle and taught art classes. When he wasn’t teaching he loved to paint pictures of the workers construction buildings. He stayed in Seattle until he died in 2000.
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