Lawrence was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey after his parents had moved north from Virginia and South Carolina. Following another move to Easton, Pennsylvania, his parents separated and his mother moved with Lawrence and his brother and sister to Philadelphia. In 1927, unable to support them, she placed the children in foster homes until she was able to settle in Harlem with them three years later, when Lawrence was thirteen. His own rootless youth combined with his interest in African American history made the movement of fugitive slaves and freed black people an ongoing theme of his art.
Lawrence's art education began in New York when he designed masks in a school program in Harlem run by Charles Alston, with whom he continued to study while in high school and in WPA art workshops beginning in 1932. In Alston's studio during the 1930s, he met many of the luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance, as well as his future wife, the painter Gwendolyn Knight. According to Lawrence, the purpose of his social realist art was to narrate the history of African Americans and to lift them out of economic slavery. His use of the series format—devoted to subjects such as Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, and "The Migration of the Negro"—represents his most direct effort to accomplish this goal.
William H. Truettner and Roger B. Stein, editors, with contributions by Dona Brown, Thomas Andrew Denenberg, Judith K. Maxwell, Stephen Nissenbaum, Bruce Robertson, Roger B. Stein, and William H. Truettner Picturing Old New England: Image and Memory (Washington, D.C.; New Haven, Conn; and London: National Museum of American Art with Yale University Press, 1999)
Jacob Lawrence grew up in Harlem in the 1930s, where, despite the Depression, he found a “real vitality” among the black artists, poets, and writers in the community. He studied at the Harlem Art Workshop and joined the “306” studio, where he met his future wife, Gwendolyn Knight. Lawrence never completed high school but taught himself African American history, spending hours in the library researching legendary black figures and events to use in his paintings. He worked for the Works Progress Administration in the late 1930s and in 1941 was the first African American artist to be represented by a New York gallery. Lawrence created several series of paintings that documented the stories of heroes such as Harriet Tubman and John Brown. He considered his work to be celebratory and said once that his images “just deal with the social scene . . . They’re how I feel about things.” (Wheat, Jacob Lawrence, American Painter, 1986)