Monument to the Great Northern Migration

Monument to the Great Northern Migration, 1994
Alison Saar
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive at 26th Place

            This fifteen-foot tall monument, oriented in a northward direction, stands at the entrance to the historic district of Bronzeville, an area bounded by 22nd Street to the north, 51st Street to the south, Cottage Grove to the east and the Rock Island Railroad to the west. Known in the 1920s as the “Black Belt,” the term “Bronzeville” was suggested by James J. Gentry, the theatre editor for the Chicago Bee, as a less offensive term as it more accurately described the skin tone of most of the neighborhood’s inhabitants. This bronze figure depicting a man waving with one hand and carrying a suitcase in the other represents the six million African Americans who migrated to northern cities from the American South from the 1910s to the 1970s. His clothes and the mound upon which he stands appear to be crafted from thousands of worn soles of shoes. The bollards surrounding the statue take the form of suitcases textured with patterns derived from the tin ceilings of the early 20th century.
            Alison Saar (born 1956) grew up in Laurel Canyon, California and studied at Scripps College with Samella Lewis, noted scholar of African, African American and Caribbean art. Saar’s works are often figurative, employing archetypal images to intertwine folklore and legend with the struggles and spiritual concerns of everyday people. She is the daughter of artist Betye Saar, who came to prominence with her 1972 assemblage piece The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, which portrayed the stereotypical figure of a “mammy” holding a broom in one hand and a rifle in the other. Alison Saar’s monument reflects the hope of a “promised land,” often unrealized, that prompted so many African Americans to leave the Jim Crow South.

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