Courageous Black Lives - Catlett

Courageous Black Lives – Robert Smalls and Elizabeth Catlett

In History by Caris Adel2 Comments

Last fall I taught a class at our homeschool co-op on Courageous Black Lives. I was a little nervous about doing this topic, but ended up being able to frame the class in a way that not only discusses the courage and bravery of over 30 people that I want the kids to recognize, but also talks about the powers of white supremacy that they were fighting against. I’m slowly posting what we did and links to resources I used.

What does it mean to be Courageous? We’re going to look at why people were so bold and courageous, why they seemed to do things out of the ordinary, and what the ordinary things were that they were standing up against. Why did they need to be courageous? Each week we’ll look at a person throughout history, along with a creative black person that you should be familiar with who used their art courageously.

Robert Smalls

Born: April 5, 1839

Died: February 23, 1915

An enslaved African American who, during and after the American Civil War, became a ship’s pilot, sea captain, and politician.


Watch video from  1:47-6:19. Pause and talk briefly about Reconstruction, then continue watching from 6:20-11:15.

Robert Smalls

In 1862, Robert Smalls, an enslaved crew-member of the CSS Planter, steals the boat, sails it past the heavily armed defenses of Charleston Harbor in South Carolina and delivers it into the hands of the Union forces further out.


Extra – A new TED Talk

The Audacity of Robert Smalls | Michael B. Moore | TEDxStMarksSchool

Michael B. Moore shares the story of escaped slave Robert Smalls, his great-great grandfather. Smalls commandeered a Confederate Naval vessel, freeing his family and two others. But Small’s life story doesn’t end there. Prepare to hear one of the least well-known, most important stories of the Civil War. Michael B.


More Information

There are other details I wanted to mention besides what was covered:

  • He also knew where all the torpedoes in the water were buried, and had heard the Confederate officers discussing their plans.
  • It was 7 miles to the Union boats
  • Normally people received the price of captured ships and guns as a reward. But the government only paid Smalls and his crew half the value because they were black. And to make it worse, Congress didn’t give them their money – they put it in a savings account and would only give them a little bit each year.
  • He was riding a streetcar in Philadelphia, but when he got on the conductor told him he had to sit on the outside of the car because he was black. So Robert said he would rather leave the car instead of ride on the platform. When people found out that a famous war hero was treated like that, they boycotted the streetcars and held meetings to protest it. So some streetcar companies stopped discriminating and two years later there was a law that stopped it.
  • After the war, freed slaves were supposed to get 40 acres of land to start a new life, but the government didn’t follow through. But Robert got lucky because his former owner was selling his plantation house, and Robert bought it. He quickly founded a school for black kids.
  • A group of white men formed a group called Red Shirts. 2000 of them attacked a group of 40 black men, murdering many of them, and burned homes and businesses. Robert was angry and made sure that the government heard about it, and had them send troops to help keep the people safe during the elections.
  • One time a white mob wanted to lynch two black men, and Robert Smalls and the black community worked together to protect the men.
“My race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.” – Robert Smalls
Power Discussion

Using the form below, we reviewed the lesson and they filled in the squares. Some of the kids drew pictures to represent it if they didn’t want to write it all out.  

Who Had the Power? – his owner, president, Ben Tillman – people in authority had the power to make things better or worse for their citizens  

What Was the Injustice? Slavery, the money reward, land, voting/rights  

Who Were the Allies? ———————————–  

How Could It Have Been Fixed? Been more fair – they could have been given their money and land, kept Reconstruction going  

What Were the Acts of Resistance and Courage? stealing ship, Philly streetcar, being in the legislature, Red Shirts, stopped lynching fought racism, unfair wage       


Laws and Practices

(we’re going to keep a list of all the laws we come across)
SC 1895 Constitution   


We also talked about Hampton University, because it was near us and it will come up with Catlett – It was founded in 1868 by black and white leaders of the American Missionary Association after the American Civil War to provide education to freedmen.

Power Worksheet


Elizabeth Catlett


Born: April 15, 1915

Died: April 2, 2012

African-American graphic artist and sculptor best known for her depictions of the African-American experience in the 20th century, which often had the female experience as their focus.


I had a book of Elizabeth Catlett prints that I brought in for them to look through. It was locally published by Hampton University, and I can’t find it right now, but I read a couple of short excerpts from it that talked about art documenting history, and how that’s what Catlett did and why it’s so important.



Watch from :25-1:30

Elizabeth Catlett


Watch from :48-1:50

I Have Always Worked Hard in America, Elizabeth Catlett

Cleveland Museum of Art curator Jane Glaubinger discusses Elizabeth Catlett linoleum artwork. Elizabeth Catlett Mora (born April 15, 1915) is an African-American sculptor and printmaker. Catlett is best known for the black, expressionistic sculptures and prints she produced during the 1960s and 1970s, which are seen as politically charged.

Watch from :20-2:30

Elizabeth Catlett Exhibit – Hampton University Museum

The Hampton University Museum, the oldest in Virginia, founded in 1868, features Elizabeth Catlett’s legacy through her amazing prints. Having one of the largest Catlett collections, 25 new pieces never seen in Hampton Roads highlight the faces of women through history. Her former students will also be included, as well as her former husband.


start at 1:20 leaders are active in some way to benefit other people

Elizabeth Catlett : My Definition of a Leader



Watch all.

Elizabeth Catlett: Sculpting the Truth presents Elizabeth Catlett, who sculpts the truth from wood, stone, terra cotta, and the people she knows… mothers, workers, children. Her inspiration comes from women, because, as she says, women have to try a little harder. Her work is technically flawless, and artistically brilliant.

“I have always wanted my art to service my people – to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential….We have to create an art for liberation and for life.” – Elizabeth Catlett

I read these excerpts from this obituary article.  

Catlett’s decision to focus on her ethnic identity, and its association with slavery and class struggles, was bold and unconventional in the 1930s and ’40s, when African Americans were expected “to assimilate themselves into a more Eurocentric ethic,” art curator Lowery Stokes Sims said in a 1993 National Public Radio interview.  

Confident that art could foster social change, Catlett confronted the most disturbing injustices against African Americans. “I wanted to show the history and strength of all kinds of black women,” Catlett told the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times in 1992. “Working women, country women, urban women, great women in the history of the United States.”  

Elizabeth Catlett is part of a history of protest art in America,” Tritobia Hayes Benjamin, director of the Howard University Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., said in a 2005 Times interview. “She made statements in her art about the human condition, about social justice and injustice.”  

The collective’s left-leaning political affiliations partly led the U.S. government to declare Catlett an “undesirable alien” in 1959, when she was briefly held in a roundup of Americans living in Mexico who were suspected of communist activity.  

Turned away from the Carnegie Institute of Technology because she was “colored,” Catlett earned a bachelor’s degree in art in the mid-1930s from Howard University, a historically black institution. She joined the Works Progress Administration, the Depression-era program that employed many starving artists, and was exposed to Rivera and his fellow Mexican muralist Miguel Covarrubias, whose politics influenced her future works.  

Catlett taught art at a North Carolina high school for a time but was discouraged by the inequality in pay between black and white teachers. She left for what is now the University of Iowa, earning a master’s in fine art in 1940. Faculty member Grant Wood — best known for “American Gothic,” his 1930 painting of an Iowa farm couple — mentored her. He encouraged Catlett to do as he did and use her culture and community as the subject of her art. “I’d never been around white people in all my life except to fight with them,” Catlett later said of Wood’s unexpected support.

  Print and handout appropriate page



Week 1 – Benjamin Banneker and Music from Slavery

Week 2 – Harriet Ann Jacobs and Eubie Blake

Week 3 – Mifflin Gibbs and Lucille Clifton

Week 4 – Robert Smalls and Elizabeth Catlett

Linking up with Literacy Musing Mondays

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  • Beth @ Pages and Margins

    What wonderful resources! Thank you for sharing! I actually just listened to an episode of The Memory Palace podcast that talked about Robert Smalls and was quite well done — you can check it out here if you’re interested!

  • Tami – This Mom’s Delight

    This was very interesting to read. It’s important to include this history in our children’s view of the world. Thanks for linking up to Literacy Musing Mondays.