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Great Migration: Finding Pictures

Searching for Images

As when searching for visual evidence of any broad historical event or social movement, first do some background research to identify specific events, places, individuals and dates you hope to see depicted—as this is the type of information that is most often included in image descriptions in the online catalog. In other words, what are you hoping to find images of? Secondly, think about what kind of evidence you think these images would provide.

Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

The Prints & Photographs Online Catalog (PPOC) includes descriptions of about 95% of the materials in the Division's collections and is the primary means of finding descriptions of images from the collections of the Prints & Photographs Division.

Below are some categories to consider as you prepare to enter keywords into the online catalog.* Using Great Migration as a search term will not yield many relevant results simply because images in the collection are not assigned this label. Sample search terms are italicized.

  • African American communities and individuals Black, negro, colored or African American.* Item descriptions often include direct transcriptions of original captions. The Library presents the historic captions because they can be important for understanding the context in which the images were created.
  • Time period -- try using decade ranges like 1930-1940, or specific years.
  • Specific people or group categories e.g. Louis Armstrong, migrants, etc.
  • Places -- where were people coming from and where were they going? Where did they work? e.g. Georgia, Texas, Madison County; Omaha, Chicago, Detroit, Oakland, Harlem, Buick plant, etc.
  • Occupation: e.g. sharecropper, factory worker, lawyer, doctor, musician, etc.
  • Housing -- e.g. projects, houses, "colored housing," etc.
  • Segregation -- evident, for example, on signs for schools and businesses -- e.g. segregation, "colored only," "white waiting room," etc.
  • Racial violence -- e.g. race riots, lynching, etc.
  • Artist names e.g. Gordon Parks, Jacob Lawrence, Dorothea Lange, etc.
  • Subjects e.g. federal housing, housing projects, voting, civil rights, Harlem Renaissance, riots, Jim Crow, etc.
  • Format e.g. photographic print or negative, poster, drawing, cartoon, architectural drawing, etc.

When you find a catalog record relevant to your research, it can be useful to click on the subject headings in that record in order to find related images.

*Terms used to describe images related to the lives of African Americans in the 20th century were assigned by individuals sometimes from outside and sometimes from within African American communities. Please note that terminology in historical materials and in Library descriptions does not always match the language preferred by African Americans individually or as a community, and may include negative stereotypes.

To Consider As You Examine Images

Often we are lacking information about people in a photograph or the context around which the image was created, so we do not necessarily know, for example, if their relocation or migration was permanent, or whether the community depicted was directly affected by black migration from the South. Consider the two photos below for a case study:

  • What does the title of the image tell you about what is happening?
  • What are the people doing in the photograph? (e.g. If the image title describes the people depicted as migrants, do we know whether their migration was temporary or permanent? How might the distinction matter? Or, knowing through other evidence that the demographics of Chicago changed drastically due to the migration of many African Americans from the South, does an image of black congregants gathered outside a church in Chicago provide us with evidence of the Great Migration? Why or why not?)
  • Do other primary or secondary sources provide more context for the image, helping you to build an argument for why or why not the image relates to the Great Migration?
  • The photo below at left is often used in publications about the Great Migration, although the likelihood is that the people depicted were only temporarily relocating to New Jersey. Even if nothing about the image or its description is explicitly linked to the Great Migration, might it still tell us something about the context in which the movement occurred? Why or why not?