Retired educator recalls the world artist faced in the 1930s

Dec. 09, 2012 @ 09:20 PM

Retired Durham educator Eddie Davis painted a picture Sunday of Durham when Elizabeth Catlett, who became a world-famous artist, taught at Hillside High School during the 1930s.
Catlett (1915-2012) taught art from 1935-37, during some of the worst years of the Great Depression. She worked in a racially segregated school system, when tobacco was king and mill workers had been on strike.
“Many of her works reflected the black power movement of the 1960s and beyond,” Davis, who also taught at Hillside, told the audience at Durham’s main library downtown.
Davis said Catlett worked with labor organizers and “progressive politics” during her two years in Durham, then moved to other parts of the United States and eventually to Mexico, where she spent much of her life.
She was an American-born sculptor and printmaker whose influence was felt worldwide.
“I think she was able to capture the African-American essence, but she had a global view of lots of different things,” Davis said. “She was able to take the human shape and do things that reflected the black experience and the broader experience of humanity.”
The year she came to Durham, the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs – now the politically influential Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People – was formed.
Davis said Catlett had “run-ins” with James Shepard, founder of what is now N.C. Central University, over disparities in pay for blacks and whites, women and men.
“We have come a long way,” Davis said. “I wonder what she would say today if she came back to Durham. Back in those days, there were no blacks on the school board, and now there are. We have a black mayor and black chairman of the County Commissioners, and judges. We have museums that exhibit black art.”
“I think she’d be pleased,” he said. “I think she’d smile, but I think she was the kind of person who also would be very critical of things that are not correct – not only about white folks, but about what she would think black folks ought to be doing.”
One of Catlett’s contemporaries in Durham was Mamie Dowd Walker, the first female judge in North Carolina.
Her grandson, Milo Pyne, was in the audience Sunday afternoon with memories of his grandmother and memorabilia from her days on the bench, including the gavel she used.
Pyne said Walker was first appointed a Durham judge in 1934, and retired from the bench in 1949.
She was appointed for one-year terms in a joint vote by the Durham City Council and Board of County Commissioners.
“In 1941, some kind of coup was executed and she was not reappointed,” Pyne said. “And that launched a firestorm and a blistering editorial in The Carolina Times.”
But she gathered support, and was reappointed to the bench in 1942.
Pyne said his grandmother moved into his family’s house on Vickers Avenue after she retired. She died in 1960 when he was 10.
“Her husband had died in the 1930s [during the Depression], and when my mother asked her why she wanted the judgeship, she said: ‘We just simply needed the money.’ ”
Pyne said he continues to research Walker’s contributions to Durham and learn new things, including how people felt about her.
“She was highly respected,” Pyne said, “and everybody called her Judge Walker.”