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Bay Area artist activist among first African American students

Photo Courtesy of Mills Quarterly

Frances Dunham-Catlett, one of the first Black women to attend Mills, has received national recognition for her artwork and her role in the black arts and civil rights movements. The 97-year-old painter still enters art shows and goes bowling twice a week. "I have to get my exercise," she said with a laugh.

While Catlett was at the University of Chicago earning her bachelor's degree she ran in the same circle as dancer Katherine Dunham (the sister of her first husband), author Richard Wright, sculptor Elizabeth Catlett (who would later become her sister-in-law), scholar W.E.B. DuBois and actress Dorothy Heyward.

Catlett smiled and said, "We did great things, and it was a Black Renaissance."

Catlett left Chicago with her husband for Boston and earned her BA at the University of Boston before she made the trip to San Francisco. Catlett lived with the family of long time friend Professor Howard Thurman; the Thurmans were active with Mills' Eucalyptus press and suggested that Catlett attend Mills.

During her attendance at Mills, Catlett was unaware that she was one of the first Black students on campus. She said she never realized that she was making history at Mills because she didn't know she was first.

"At the time I was at Mills, I had already had some life experience – and I just went to school and did what I had to do," Catlett said.

She said that the all-women's dynamic allowed for Mills to be somewhat of a "healing place" for her after two marriages ended in an eight-year period. When Catlett came to Mills she was a single mother of two.

After her graduation in 1947 Catlett became part of the staff at Olney Hall at the invitation of Dean Anna Rose Hawkes.

"I wasn't highly conscious at that time of what I represented as far as a black person. But I found out later," she said referencing a note that she found written by Hawkes.

According the Mills Quarterly the note said, "The parents of the children don't seem to mind her at all, and she seems to be very helpful to the children."

Catlett told The Weekly that the note also said that Hawkes hoped Catlett would be able to fight prejudice.

"I wasn't thinking of me-at that point, in that kind of a situation."

Catlett spent much of her life after Mills as a social worker. Through her affiliations with the San Francisco Mental Health Society, Catlett was able to help with the research for building a foster care system on the west coast.

"It's a shame that social workers don't do what they used to. Now they just check on people's eligibility for money… that doesn't do good to get those kids off the streets."

Catlett used her art to express her feelings of what was happening politically in the country, protesting both physically and metaphorically with her artwork.

"During the time, I witnessed and was part of many marches. One time I saw the San Francisco Fire Department hose down the protesters on the steps of the city hall … Nobody talks about that-all swept under the carpet now."

Catlett's influence on U.S. politics and art hasn't been swept under the rug however. She has several framed awards on her walls and has participated in over 50 art shows.

"This was the recognition I get-for being a good-being black. At least someone noticed my hard work. Sometimes you live and you do great things but nobody remembers."

Catlett received the 1989 Ebony Museum Award, the California Legislature Resolution in 1994, and a proclamation from the office of the Mayor under Willie Brown in 1997. She also received proclamations from the city mayoral offices of Oakland and Berkeley.

Catlett's work is currently on display at the Richmond Art Center, in a show called "Art of the Living Black." This and a satellite show of her work at the Richmond Main Street Initiative are on display until March 24.