A Renowned Black Artist in Jim Crow St. Augustine: Jacob Lawrence

A Renowned Black Artist in Jim Crow St. Augustine: Jacob Lawrence 1

Jacob’s Light. Image courtesy of Lenny Foster, Gallery One Forty Four, St. Augustine, FL.

          Jacob Lawrence was an African-American painter born in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1917. His parents, Jacob and Rosa Lee Lawrence, separated when he was seven. Not long after his parents’ divorce, Jacob and his mother moved to Philadelphia. By the time he was twelve years old, he and his mother had moved to Harlem. There, Lawrence was immersed in the cultural and intellectual revival of African-American art, literature, music, theatre, and politics during the Harlem Renaissance. It was in Harlem that Lawrence found himself as an artist, moved by his learning and understanding of the African-American experience both past and present. His works often reflect the knowledge and themes of life in Black America.

          Jacob Lawrence initially gained artistic recognition for his depictions of historical figures such as Frederick Douglas (1939) and Harriet Tubman (1940). One of his most well-known projects, however, is the panel series The Migration of the Negro (1940–41). These paintings depict the mass migration of African-Americans to the industrial Northeast from the South between 1910-1940. These panels were first exhibited at the prestigious Downtown Gallery in New York, making Lawrence the first Black artist represented by a popular major gallery. The Migration of the Negro (1940–41) would eventually be the first piece by a Black artist acquired by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

          Lawrence became a common name within art circles across the U.S by the early 1940s. However, as the U.S. became more deeply involved in the Second World War, however, Lawrence was drafted into the United States Coast Guard in 1943. Following basic training at Curtis Bay, Maryland, Lawrence was stationed at the Hotel Ponce de Leon, which during the war served as a segregated Coast Guard facility. Being in St. Augustine gave the artist a firsthand look at Jim Crow laws and society in the South. In a letter written to his art dealer Edith Gregor Halpert in 1944, Lawrence described his experiences in the Ancient City:

“St. Augustine is a very dead city and really southern when it comes to negroes. There is nothing beautiful here everything is ugly and the people are without feeling. As a negro I feel a tenseness on the streets and in the hotel where I am working – in fact; everywhere. In the North one hears much talk of democracy and the four freedoms, down here you realize that there are a very small percentage of people who try to practice democracy. Negroes need not be told what Fascism is like, because in the south they known nothing else. All of this I am trying to get into my work….”

          Lawrence was not stationed in St. Augustine very long before he was assigned to the USS Sea Cloud, a weather patrol ship that was one of the first racially integrated ships in the U.S. naval services. While aboard the USS Sea Cloud, Lawrence was promoted to a public relations position, giving him time to paint. He was then transferred to the transport ship “USS General Wilds P. Richardson, [which] took him to Italy, Spain, Gibraltar, Egypt, and India,” where he continued to sketch various sites and scenes.

          In 1945, Lawrence was honorably discharged from the service and resumed his art career. He continued to paint, illustrate, and teach up until his death in 2000. Today, his work is commonly included in art history survey courses for young pupils of art to learn. A trailblazer in the first half of the twentieth century, Jacob Lawrence opened many new doors to Black artists in the United States. His success in breaking down barriers of racial prejudice and injustice with his artwork brought a new and necessary perspective into mainstream art. In 1943, he remarked, “I do not look upon the story of the Blacks in America as a separate experience to the American culture but as a part of the American heritage and experience as a whole.” While Jacob Lawrence’s time in St. Augustine was brief and perhaps rather bleak, the Ancient City no doubt made an impression on him and his artwork.

Written by Shelby Fox
A special thanks to local photographer Lenny Foster, who was consulted on Jacob Lawrence’s life and works for this blog.

Sources:
Jacob Lawrence. Jacob Lawrence letter to Edith Gregor Halpert, 1944 Jan.. Downtown Gallery records, 1824-1974. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
“Jacob Lawrence | Moma.” MoMA. Accessed January 26, 2024. https://www.moma.org/artists/3418.
“Jacob Lawrence.” Smithsonian American Art Museum. Accessed January 26, 2024. https://americanart.si.edu/artist/jacob-lawrence-2828.
“Moma | One Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series.” MoMA. Accessed January 26, 2024. https://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2015/onewayticket/jacob-lawrence/18/.
Turner, Elizabeth Hutton, Henry Louis Gates, Lonnie G. Bunch, and Stephen Benett Phillips. Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series. Washington: The Rappahannock Press in association with the Phillips Collection, 1993.