Interpretive Resource

Video: Walter Ellison's Train Station

Watch an analysis of Walter Ellison's painting Train Station and learn how the Great Migration impacted African Americans' lives in the 1930s.

Artist Walter Ellison's Train Station shows the social patterns of the time period and suggests the urgency of the black travelers to get on with the new life of the North.

Walter Ellison's Train Station is one of the cleverest, smartest paintings in the Institute. There are three vanishing points that create a "W," which is the first initial in Walter Ellison's name. Walter Ellison is part of the Great Migration. He came from Georgia and managed to document that experience in that very small painting. On the left, you see southbound trains and you also see well-dressed whites being escorted onto the trains by porters who are dressed in orange, and they are going to vacation spots in the South. On the right, you see northbound trains—Chicago, Detoit, New York—and you see African-American passengers boarding the train, and one of the things we should notice is that they aren't being helped by the porters. At least, not visibly. In fact, it was the porters who carried the news of the North to the South. They were the ones responsible for revealing opportunities and jobs; the riches to be had in the North. But also the respect of holding a job and not having to bow to southern whites;n trains represented freedom. That why for escaping slaves, the Underground Railroad was used as a metaphor—the railroads, the passage to freedom. During the Great Migration, trains came to concretize, or to make real, this idea of the train as escape, as a vehicle—literally—for liberation.



American Visions: African American Perspectives in Art. Produced by The Art Institute of Chicago. 20 min. The Art Institute of Chicago, 2000.

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