Art and history buffs will have a rare opportunity to see American artist Jacob Lawrence's entire vision of the Great Migration at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City.

For the first time in 20 years, each of his 60 panels detailing the mass movement of six million African Americans from the rural South to the urban North will be on display together in the same place. Lawrence's landmark series is part of a new exhibition called One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North.

"The centrepiece, the very heart of the show, is Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series, which he made in 1941 when he was just 23 years old," said Leah Dickerman, the exhibition's curator.

Lawrence was the son of migrants and called New York City's Harlem neighbourhood home. It was where he would hone his art.

Shortly after Lawrence completed his Migration Series, the 60 panel series was split apart. Half was acquired by the MoMA in New York. The other half was acquired by The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC.

Lawrence's Migration Series details in bold colour poverty and the promise of a better future the North held for millions of African Americans fleeing the South. Scenes of life and death, work, home life and hardships are shown in full bursts of colour.

"One of the things that I want people to do when they come to the exhibit is to see what an incredible work the Migration Series is. That it touches on different emotional tonalities between scenes of great tenderness and intimacy and scenes of terror and violence. That all throughout the subjects that Lawrence portrays, the figures he portrays, act with a kind of quiet dignity in the face of what is a very difficult journey from the South to the North," said Dickerman.

The exhibition at the MoMA coincides with the centennial anniversary of the start of the mass migration.

"The Great Migration had a huge demographic impact. It's one of the biggest demographic events in United States history. It's six million black Americans coming from the rural South to the urban North between 1915 and the 1970s. So that is a transformative phenomenon and that it changes the social geography of our country. It changes our cities. It changes the food we eat. It changes our economies," explained Dickerman.

She added, "I wanted this exhibition to focus on what the migration did in transforming American culture. That it brought southern sounds up and southern music and southern sermons and southern cadences and speech and integrated them into a modern, urban American culture. And out of that came blues. And out of that came jazz. And out of that came scores of new genres and landmark works. And I think that if you bring all of this together into one space, you get a sense of what this terrain is. How it serves as a crucible for much of what we think of modern American culture today."

The exhibition also offers other artistic accounts of the movement, including novels and poems by celebrated authors such as Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. Music from Duke Ellington is explored. Also included is a rare videotaped performance of Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit, her gut-wrenching song detailing a lynching.

"One of the things that museums can do, can best do, is to bring people into different conversations and into different moments in time and to test their thinking against these other ways of thinking and perhaps be transformed by them a little bit. And it think it's very powerful to look at Lawrence's concerns and think how they reflect on our own present day," said the curator.

A series of black and white photographs of families on the move are also displayed.

One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North will open to the public on 3 April and will run until 7 September 2015.