Behind The Scenes

Jacob Lawrence And WWII Integration

Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000), No. 2, Main Control Panel, Nerve Center of Ship, 1944. United States Coast Guard Museum, New London, CT. Courtesy of the US Coast Guard Historian's Office.

In 1943 America was deep into WWII oversees, but was also fighting a battle of inequality. The “Double V” campaign waged by many African Americans insisted that if they were to be fighting for their country abroad, they deserved equal rights at home. The Red Cross was segregating blood, and troops were not allowed to serve together. However, in the middle of the war, the Navy experimented with integrating one of their ships, and artist Jacob Lawrence was there to capture it.

Jacob Lawrence was already a prominent artist with a strong social and black consciousness when the war began. His paintings dealt with the struggles of black people throughout history, such as Toussaint L’Ouverture, Harriet Tubman, John Brown, and Frederick Douglass. In 1943 he was drafted into the segregated Coast Guard as a seward’s mate, serving meals to white officers. But thanks to an experimental integration policy, Lawrence was assigned to the Navy’s first integrated ship and promoted in rank so he could serve as a combat artist.

The two paintings displayed in WWII & NYCDisembarkation and No. 2 Main Control Panel—are two of the fifty canvases that Lawrence created for the Coast Guard. Each speaks to the seemingly-everyday activities of the average Coast Guard member, which become heroic in the context of war.  No. 2 Main Control Panel aws also one of forty works included in Lawrence’s 1944 solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art—the museum’s first solo show by an African American artist

Others in his War Series depict servicemen in brutal combat, and he often showed black and white servicemen together. A few of these works are currently on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art. His career extended long after the war, and when he died in 2000, the New York Times called him “one of America’s leading modern figurative painters.”

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