Frances Taylor Dunham Catlett, a social worker, painter and poet, came from an African American family with deep roots in Hartford. Many members of her extended family have made significant contributions in education, social work, the union movement, sports and the arts.
Catlett, whose parents were a formerly enslaved woman and the son of a white slave trader, was until her recent death a living connection to slavery in America.
Catlett died in San Leandro, Calif., on April 22. She was 105 years old, and had lived independently until she was 103.
She was born in Hartford on July 3, 1908. Her father, John Osborne Taylor, was the son of William Taylor, a white slave auctioneer, and Martha Ann Jett, whose heritage was Native American and African American.
Catlett's mother, Mary Agnes Epps, grew up on the same plantation as Taylor in Essex County, Va., and was a seamstress at the master's "big house."
Epps went North first, to work as a nanny in Springfield, Mass., and was later joined by Taylor. After they married in 1886, they moved to Hartford to join others who had traveled from Essex County to seek a life in Connecticut. A handful of these Virginians had started meeting to worship in 1871 in Hartford, first in homes, then in the box car of a train. The number of worshipers grew and, eventually, Taylor became one of the founders of the Union Baptist Church, then located on Mather Street in the North End of Hartford.
The Taylors lived on a double lot on Douglas Street in Hartford's South End, where they had a large garden and fruit trees. John Taylor was a shipping clerk, and Mary Agnes sold pies and aprons she sewed from shirt-tails.
The Taylors had eight daughters and a son by the time Frances was born. She attended the Burr Elementary School, where she was an excellent student, but missed out being valedictorian despite having the same grades as the winner, who was white. Catlett was an easy-going girl who ignored racial slurs, though her older sisters defended her vigorously with punches.
"Our family took advantage of Hartford as fully as possible, making good use of its schools, libraries and other public services. While we struggled to make ends meet, middle class values were the name of the game," Catlett wrote in an unpublished autobiography.
Several of her siblings stood out. One sister, Rachel Taylor Milton, graduated from Hartford Seminary, was a dean at Fiske University in Nashville, founded the Hartford Urban League, and was a member of the Connecticut Women's Hall of Fame. Another sister, Elsie Taylor DuTrieuill, graduated from Hartford Public High School in 1915, became a poet and wrote lyrics to a song that is still performed at Hartford high school graduations.
At Hartford Public, Catlett was an excellent student, and again competed for the position of valedictorian against the same girl who had been her classmate four years earlier. The position carried with it a college scholarship. Catlett lost out to the girl, and only years later thought that race might have played a role. "I was naïve," Catlett later said.
She graduated in 1926. A wealthy Hartford African American resident had offered a four-year college scholarship to a black student with the highest grades, and Catlett won. She chose the University of Chicago because an older sister lived there.
Chicago in the late 1920s and '30s was strongly influenced by the Harlem Renaissance and a growing interest in African American culture. W.E.B. Dubois was there, as was novelist Richard Wright. Catlett acted in plays by promising African American playwrights at the Cube Theater, and studied modern dancing, which had been forbidden by her church.
Her college roommate was Katherine Dunham, who later became well known as a modern dancer. Frances married Katherine's brother, Albert M. Dunham Jr., and after he received his Ph.D. in philosophy, the couple moved to Boston. Dunham had a fellowship at Harvard, and Frances completed college at Boston University in 1930. They moved to Washington, D.C., where Dunham taught at Howard University. One of Catlett's friends was Howard Thurman, an influential theologian and civil rights leader.
The Dunhams had a son, Kaye, a lyricist whose songs were recorded by artists including Diana Ross and Nancy Wilson.
The Dunhams divorced, and in 1942, Frances married John H. Catlett, a toolmaker, who died of pneumonia in 1946. They had a son, Michael.
Catlett then moved with her two young sons to San Francisco at the invitation of the Thurmans. At the time, Thurman was the pastor of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples. It was an integrated parish, where Thurman emphasized multiculturalism.
Catlett worked for the San Francisco department of welfare, earned a degree in social work at Berkeley, and obtained a master's degree in education at Mills College. She also taught social welfare at what is now California State University at Sacramento.
In retirement, Catlett concentrated on writing and painting, and became known in the San Francisco art world. She had many shows and continued painting until shortly before her death.
Catlett retained her adventurous spirit. She traveled extensively, liked hiking with the Sierra Club and took a religious pilgrimage on foot through France when she was 75. She did tai chi into her '90's and bowled and continued painting until she was about 102.
When she was about 100, she was on a dune with her son Kaye when she saw people hang gliding. "I want to come back as one of those people," she told him.
When she married Matt Crawford at age 71, it was in a Zen ceremony on top of a cliff near the San Francisco Bay.
In an autobiography she wrote in the third person, she attributed her success in life to her strong family and her supportive church background. "Whatever she had was given," she wrote.
She is survived by her son Kaye Lawrence Dunham, four grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and three great-great grandchildren. A son, Michael Catlett, one grandson and her three husbands predeceased her.
In her unpublished autobiography, written more than 15 years ago, Catlett wrote:
"So, from the early years of the 20th century to nearly the dawn of the 21st century, from the youngest of ten children to being a great-grand mother, from innocence to sophistication, through tragedies, joy and 'amazing grace,' I still travel on."