ARTSEDGE Lessons for Elementary School

The Great Migration

How can the effects of the Great Migration and the rise of Harlem as a vibrant African American community be shown in a mural?


Key Staff

Classroom teacher with opportunities to collaborate with visual arts teachers

Key Skills

Making Art: Composing and Planning
Developing Arts Literacies: Understanding Genres, Applying Vocabulary, Analyzing and Evaluating - Critique
Global Connections: Connecting to History and Culture


Students will learn to identify musical styles and musicians associated with Harlem, focusing on jazz. They will learn about the special role of music in Harlem as a unifier of a community and of a culture. Students can listen to audio samples and analyze elements of jazz and its musicians, participate in a group dance activity, and partake in language arts and visual arts extensions to reinforce key concepts learned.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Analyze how the migration to Harlem represented a new way of life for African Americans.
  • Create a mural representing one period studied in the lesson, such as the migration from Africa, life in the South, the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, or the Great Depression.
  • Create their own maps to learn about the migration of African Americans to the American South and then to northern cities and neighborhoods such as Harlem.
  • Explore paintings by Jacob Lawrence to understand the experience of blacks who migrated from the South.
  • Learn about the significance of Harlem in African American history.
  • Make a travel brochure highlighting historic landmarks of Harlem.
  • Write a journal entry as if they were African Americans migrating from a southern state to a northern city in 1900.

Teaching Approach

Arts Integration

Teaching Methods

  • Discussion
  • Visual Instruction
  • Studio Practice
  • Direct Instruction

Assessment Type

Performance Assessment


What You'll Need

Required Technology
  • 1 Computer per Learner
  • Internet Access
Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

Teachers should:

  • Have an understanding of the Great Migration and the development of African-American communities in the early twentieth century
  • Be familiar with the culture of Harlem

Prior Student Knowledge

Students should:

  • Be familiar with the idea of slavery.
  • Understand that art is a reflection of society and culture.
  • Know how to read and create timelines.

Physical Space



  • Large Group Instruction
  • Small Group Instruction


  • Test internet connection
  • Make relevant photocopies
  • Procure art supplies

Accessibility Notes

Students with physical disabilities may need modified movements.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.



1. Before you begin the lesson, introduce the following words:

  • Migration
  • Abolish
  • Segregate
  • Voluntary

2. Introduce the concept of migration. (Migration is the movement of a group of people from one country, region, or place to another.) Ask students the following:

  • Why do people migrate?
  • Why do they go where they go?
  • Is migration always voluntary?
  • Compare the early migration of blacks and whites to America.
  • Why did European settlers initially come to the Americas?
    (Answers may include: religious freedom, new opportunities, escaping problems in their own countries.)
  • What about the millions of African Americans who came to America in colonial times? What brought them here?
    (They were forced to come here as slaves, captured in their home countries, and sold here in the America as "goods" or property.)

3. You may choose to discuss slavery in general terms with your class. What is slavery? (When someone is owned by another person and thought of as property.)

4. Explain that Africans were not the only people in history to be enslaved. The ancient Romans and Egyptians captured and used slaves. During the Middle Ages, tribes from northern Europe and Asia raided other lands, took captives, and sold them as slaves throughout Europe. Even today, slavery still exists in parts of the world, where, for example, women and children are forced to work in factories, in homes, or elsewhere. (For more information, visit Anti-Slavery International or Amnesty International).

Build Knowledge

1. Explain that slavery was abolished in the United States when the Civil War ended in 1865, but life was still very difficult for blacks in the South. Many lived in poverty, they were not allowed to vote, and they were often threatened (and even killed) by angry whites. Many public places, such as restrooms and schools, were segregated, or separated, for whites and blacks. Those challenges forced many blacks to leave the South in the early twentieth century. Over the next several decades, more than one million blacks moved out of the South. This mass movement was called the Great Migration.

2. Tell students that one way to learn about the Great Migration is through the paintings of an African American artist named Jacob Lawrence. His parents were from the South and had migrated North during World War I. As an adult living in Harlem, he used his art to tell the stories of the African Americans who migrated North. He painted a series of 60 paintings called The Migration of the Negro.

3. Show the class the selected images from The Migration of the Negro, available online. As you click through the paintings in the order they're presented on the Web site, ask students to briefly discuss what each painting tells about the migrants' experience. How do these images portray the Great Migration? Have students look at the composition of the paintings and describe the mood or emotion that each conveys. (Lawrence uses dark colors, heavy brush strokes. His black figures look weary but determined.)

4. Discuss symbolism in selected paintings. (For example, the migrating birds flying overhead in painting No. 3, the laborer with no face in painting No. 4, or the white judge in painting No. 14.)

5. After viewing the images, have students use what they've learned to answer the following questions:

  • What are some of the reasons African Americans left the South?
    (Answers include poverty, lynchings, mistreatment by whites, failing crops, unfair criminal systems.)
  • What did you learn about the actual journeys of these migrants? How did they travel? What did they carry with them?
    (Many traveled in crowded trains. They carried few material possessions.)
  • What was life like for African Americans in Northern cities? Encourage them to describe the positive aspects (new job opportunities) as well as the difficulties (i.e., poor living conditions, segregation and discrimination in the North, race riots).

6. Next, hand out a photocopy of the U.S. map to each student. Explain that they are going to make their own map of the Great Migration. Have them use a blue marker to show the migration of blacks out of the slave states. Explain that some blacks moved south to Mexico, some moved West, but most moved to Northern states. Many headed to cities in the North, such as Boston, Massachusetts; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Chicago, Illinois; Detroit, Michigan; Cleveland, Ohio; and New York City, New York. Help students find and mark these cities on their maps and have them draw blue arrows to show the direction of the migration.

7. As a class, revisit the question of migration. Discuss how the Great Migration was unique for African Americans. How was it different from their migration to America? Was the Great Migration voluntary? Why were African Americans migrating? (They were in search of a better life.)

8. Explain that although this migration was voluntary, it may have been a painful decision to leave behind their homes and families. Ask students to talk about what people may have left behind in both the migration from Africa and the Great Migration, and keep a list on the board. For example:

Migration from Africa

Great Migration




No education




Hard manual labor in the fields



9. Finally, ask students:

  • What was gained during these migrations?
  • What was lost?


1. Tell students that many blacks who migrated to New York City congregated in a neighborhood called Harlem. Harlem, which became known as the "Negro Capital of America," is an important place in the history of African Americans. Have students use the Great Migration map to name the states and countries that made up Harlem's growing population.

2. Use maps to show students where Harlem is located. Present a map of Manhattan and explain that the island is part of New York City. Next, point out the neighborhood of Harlem on the map (north of Central Park). Both of these maps are available in the Build Knowledge slide of the Resource Carousel above.

3. Ask students to think about the effect that a group of migrants can have on a place. How might a group of migrants change the place where they've moved? How might the migrants themselves change in the new place? Explain that when New York City was first founded, most people and businesses were located downtown (the southern tip of Manhattan in what is now called the Financial District). In the early days of the city's history, the area where Harlem is today was still rural. New York was first settled in the 1600s by Dutch farmers from the Netherlands. It was then called New Amsterdam (after the capital of the Netherlands; Harlem is also named after a city in the Netherlands, called Haarlem.)

4. Have each student write a journal entry as if he or she were an African American migrating from a Southern state to a Northern city in 1900. Encourage the students to think about what would be exciting or scary about this journey, as well as what was to be gained or left behind. You may opt to have students share their journal entries aloud or assemble them into a booklet which you can make available in the classroom for students to read.


1. Have students take another look at their journal entries. The students will create a work of art about their journal. Students can create a comic-book style page depicting the story of their entry, or a collage of images from magazines and newspapers, or any other type of artistic expression, as long as it specifically relates to their pre-written journal.


Complete the following rubrics located within the Resource Carousel to assess the student's work:

Extending the Learning

Extension I: The Mind's Suitcase
Explain that when Africans migrated from their homeland during the slave trade, they could not bring material possessions with them. Then, when African Americans were migrating from the South to the North, they often carried few possessions with them on their trip because most were very poor and the trip was long. But although they did not bring many material objects with them, they brought many valuable things in their hearts and minds. Ask students to think of those things as the "mind's suitcase." What are some things that these migrants may have packed in their "mind's suitcase"? (Their way of talking, their foods, their songs, dance, memories of their families and handed-down fables and stories from their homeland, skills at crafts and arts—in short, their culture.)

Ask students to imagine they are moving to a new country, but they are not allowed to take any material possessions. What would they carry in their own "mind's suitcase"? Have students create a representation of their suitcase, through visual arts (such as a drawing, painting, or collage) or through writing (such as a poem or story). They may also combine visual arts and writing.

Share examples of how a group's culture is carried over through migration:

The Gullah language was spoken by blacks from the Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina. Gullah was a special language that stemmed from dialects of Jamaica and other islands of the Caribbean. Many blacks that migrated to the cities in the North spoke this language. Even though they slowly adopted the mainstream English, some Gullah words remained a part of their vocabulary. Some examples of common Gullah words (some of which the students may already know) are: goober (peanut), juju (magic), jigger (a type of flea), voodoo (witchcraft), yam (sweet potato), and samba (dance).

Extension II: Call and Response
"Call and response" is a style of music, song, and dance that involves repetition. In call and response, the leader sings a line from a song, accompanied by a specific movement (such as a head pat), which is then repeated by the group. This African tradition was brought to the Americas by black slaves and carried on by African Americans. Lead children in a call-and-response activity using the song "Kye Kye Kule" from Ghana. The words, pronunciation, and accompanying motions can be found on the site, K-2 West Africa Lesson Plans: Music.


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

ArtsEdge Lessons connect to the National Standards for Arts Education, the Common Core Standards, and a range of other subject area standards.

Common Core/State Standards

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Daniella Garran
Original Writer

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