Mini Lesson

Exploring Biography Through Art in The Great Migration

George Swanson Starling in Detroit, torn construction paper, glue, pencil, oil pastel, 8.5 x 11 in.



This activity is meant as an introduction to a unit on Immigration and Industrialization in an American history class for 9-12 graders.  It combines art and social studies in an inquiry-based lesson through creating a collage based on a person of the migration as well as the effects of their movements and experiences on the larger social, political and economic outcomes.

classmates’ examples

Langston Hughes, Louis Armstrong, Bill Russell, Toni Morrison, James Earl Jones and Rosa Parks


Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong


Examples of People to Choose From:

Art:                                                       Music:
Jacob Lawrence                              John Coltrane       Thelonius Monk
Romare Bearden                             Miles Davis             Louis Armstrong /  Chicago Blues

Bill Russell
Jesse Owens

Toni Morrison                                           Richard Wright
Langston Hughes                                    Zora Neal Hurston
James Baldwin

Dr. T.R.M. Howard

Arrington High – sent to an asylum in Mississippi illegally and ended up in Chicago smuggled out in a coffin (teacher has secondary source handout on paper).

Emmett Till (parents migrated but went back to the South to visit)

Eugene Williams and the Chicago Race Riots of 1919 (He was from Georgia.)

Everyday People: Philadelphia Oral Histories (transcripts included)

Harlem Renaissance People 1916-1930s
*Be sure to research if they were part of the Great Migration or were born in the North before beginning

Marcus Garvey, Cyril Briggs, and Walter Francis White; performers Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson; writers and poets Zora Neale Hurston, Effie Lee Newsome, Countee Cullen; visual artists Aaron Douglas and Augusta Savage; and an extraordinary list of legendary musicians, including Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Eubie Blake, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Ivie Anderson, Josephine Baker, Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, and countless others.
(Might find some people on here)

Kenyon College Biographies

Maps, Photos & Overview Resources
NY Public Library


Lesson Plan

1) Title: Exploring Biography through Art in the Great Migration

2) Grade Level & Subject: 9-12th grade

3) Time Needed: 50 minutes (Note: this lesson is part of a larger unit on the Great Migration, designed as an introduction.)

4) Materials: Computer, Internet connection, paper, pencils, erasers, colored construction paper, glue or glue sticks, scissors, colored markers, other decorative papers, rulers, oil pastels., thumbtacks.

5) Description & Purpose: Using a research-based inquiry method to probe the compelling questions, students will choose a person to research, find and evaluate sources and compile information on a person affected by the Great Migration in the years 1910-1970. This lesson seeks a balance between independently discovered content through inquiry and the practice of historical skills including research and evidence for claims, as well arts integration. Understanding history on a micro-level first, students will share knowledge about their person in an artwork they created to the rest of the class and relate how this individual was part of a larger movement that affected U.S. culture, politics or economics.

5) Standards:
Iowa Core Social Studies Standards:
Geography: Analyze Human Population Movement and Patterns, SS-US.9-12.17. Analyze the effects of urbanization, segregation, and voluntary and forced migration within regions of the U.S. on social, political, and economic structures.
History: Compare Perspectives, SS-US.9-12.25. Analyze how regional, racial, ethnic and gender perspectives influenced American history and culture.
C3 Framework: D1.5.9-12. Determine the kinds of sources that will be helpful in answering compelling and supporting questions, taking into consideration multiple points of view represented in the sources, the types of sources available, and the potential uses of the sources.

National Arts Standards:
Creating, Anchor standard 2. Organize and develop artistic ideas and work.
Connecting, Anchor standard 11. Relate artistic ideas and works with societal, cultural and historical context to deepen understanding.

6) Objectives:
TLW, either with a partner, small group or alone, investigate the effects of the Great Migration through the lens of biography, choosing one person to research how this individual has shaped American culture on a micro-level, creating an artwork about them and their experience, SS-US.9-12.25, National Arts Anchor standards 2 & 11.

TLW connect their person with the larger patterns of the Great Migration, with emphasis on the factors that caused their individual to leave and the effects of the migration on the North or South in either social, political or economic ways through the eyes of this person, SS-US.9-12.17.

TLW explore the types of sources available and analyze which ones would be most useful for their person’s biography, linking them to the larger story of the Great Migration, and checking for credibility, D1.5.9-12.

7) Procedure: (Total: 50 min.)
Launch/Introduction: (5 min.)

1. Compelling questions: What economic, cultural and political factors might cause people to
move, voluntarily or involuntarily from place to place? During the Great Migration, what were
the reasons people left the South for the North?  How did this affect the culture, politics and
economics of the North or South? (1 min.)

2. Students will be asked to write on the board why someone in their family (or someone they
have known or read about) migrated from one place to another. Then, the teacher will ask
them to categorize these into social, economic or political arenas in order to clarify the
definitions of these terms, needed later in the lesson. (4 min.)

Main Body: (40 min.)
Background Information: (10 min.)

  1. Students view a slideshow presented by teacher on basics of the Great Migration, without giving too much away about the causes and effects, in order for them to find their own reasons through the lives of individuals.

Create: (30 min.)

  1. Teacher explains that students will be asked to create an artwork using the materials provided that relate to this person’s experience in the Great Migration including reasons they left and the effects of their departure, in some way of their choosing, but collage is recommended. It can be abstract or figurative, literal or symbolic.
  2. Teacher explains that they must include the following in their artwork (this is also shown on the slides as reminder): a) Visual representation (abstract or figurative) of an experience of your person related to the Great Migration, for example, a job in the North or a reason why they left the South. b) An image representing an effect of their lives on the larger culture, politics or economics, especially in the North. How does their experience tie into the larger movement?
  3. Teacher also explains they are to research these people using sources online or in the books provided, either alone, with a partner or small group and fill out the supporting worksheet.
  4. Teacher reviews in slides how to choose supporting sources, going over types and ways to check credibility with a paper handout. This includes audio files, images, written material, films or other types of primary and secondary sources.
  5. Students choose partners and have work time.

Conclusion: (5 min.)

  1.  Students will present their artwork to the class, pin to the bulletin board and explain
    who they chose, their experiences or stories and what they depicted in their artwork
    that relates to the larger, “big picture” effects of the migration.

8) Assessment:

Formative: Teacher will meet with small groups and see if they have collected relevant and credible sources and make sure they have started asking supporting questions to help guide further research. Teacher will ask each group to inform her of the person they have chosen and their strategy for creating the artwork product and determining sources.

Summative: Teacher will collect artifacts from students including art piece and worksheet and check for completion.

9) Visuals:
Teacher Example:

George Swanson Starling in Detroit, torn construction paper, glue, pencil, oil pastel, 8.5 x 11 in.

Slide Images

10) Books available in class

Reich, S. (Ed.). (2006). Encyclopedia of the Great Black Migration, Vol. 1, 2, 3. Westport, CT:
Greenwood Press.

Wilkerson, I. (2010). The warmth of other suns: The epic story of America’s Great Migration.
New York, NY: Random House.

*Excerpts from Wilkerson’s book on Arrington High, Jesse Owens and Eugene Williams will be available as a few paper copies for use in class. These are also attached in ICON and on the blog.

11) Worksheet and Handout

12) References

Beardon, R. (1967). Three folk musicians. Retrieved from

Civic online reasoning poster. (2019). Standford History Education Group. Retrieved from

Lawrence, J. (1941). The migration series. Phillips Collection. Retrieved from

Lawrence, J. (1941). The migration series. MoMA. Retrieved from

Marshall, J., & Donahue, D. (2014) Art-Centered Learning Across the Curriculum. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Migration resources. (2019). New York Public Library. Retrieved from

Newman, M. (2004). The civil rights movement. Edinburgh, U.K.: Edinburgh University Press.

Reich, S. (Ed.). (2006). Encyclopedia of the Great Black Migration, Vol. 1, 2, 3. Westport, CT:
Greenwood Press.

The African Americans: Many rivers to cross. (2013). PBS. Retrieved from

The Great Migration. (2017). Sound Smart. Retrieved from

Wilkerson, I. (2016, September). The long-lasting legacy of the Great Migration. Smithsonian.
Retrieved from

Wilkerson, I. (2010). The warmth of other suns: The epic story of America’s Great Migration.
New York, NY: Random House.

Wills, M. (2019, February 6). JSTOR Daily. Racial violence as impetus for the Great Migration.
Retrieved from

Art Education Integration Resources Helpful for Social Studies

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