A Harlem street scene by Jacob Lawrence, Ambulance Call

African Americans struggled to access quality healthcare after WWII

Jacob Lawrence, Ambulance Call, 1948, tempera on board, 61 x 50.8 cm (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art) Speakers: Jennifer Padgett, assistant curator, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and Beth Harris

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Key points

  • From the 1920s until the 1940s, Harlem was the epicenter of African American culture. Known as the Harlem Renaissance, this period of cultural richness and collaboration redefined how the African American experience was expressed in art, music, and literature. In this painting, Jacob Lawrence evokes the vibrant sense of community and energy in Harlem, even without depicting the city itself.
  • After World War I, during what is known as the Great Migration, millions of African Americans relocated from agrarian regions in the southern states to cities in the North. Hoping to escape the brutal racism and violence of the Jim Crow South, they were attracted by the economic opportunities provided by the growth of industry in the northern states. The range of people included in Lawrence’s painting speaks to the diverse backgrounds that were brought together in neighborhoods such as Harlem.
  • African Americans in the North continued to face racism and systemic discrimination. Lawrence’s painting speaks to one of the inequities they suffered: the lack of access to quality healthcare. Harlem Hospital was insufficiently staffed for the size of the local community and although the ambulance attendants and paramedic shown here are black, there were few job opportunities for African Americans in the medical field.

Go deeper

See this painting in the collection of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Read the transcript of a 1968 interview with Jacob Lawrence

Find out more about Jacob Lawrence’s work The Migration Series.

Listen to an interview with Isabel Wilkerson about her book on the Great Migration

Read more about the Harlem Renaissance

Learn more about the Harlem Renaissance using primary sources

Read more about the history of Harlem Hospital

Find out about the murals commissioned for Harlem Hospital through the Federal Works Progress Administration (WPA)

Learn more about the history of African Americans in the medical profession


More to think about

Consider how Lawrence communicates—in his painting and his words—the sense of vitality and connection that he observed among people living in Harlem. Do you feel like you belong to a community, either in your school, in your neighborhood, or as part of an organization or group? What specifically makes you feel connected to that community?

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.