Dunham, Katherine. | Southern Illinois University Special Collections Research Center
Anthropologist-dancer-choreographer, Katherine Mary Dunham was born in Chicago, June 22, 1909, the second child of Fanny June (Taylor) and Albert Millard Dunham who was a tailor and dry cleaner. Katherine's mother died while she and her brother Albert Jr. were quite young, and several years later her father married Annette Poindexter, a schoolteacher from Iowa. The family settled in Joliet, Illinois.
In 1928 Miss Dunham entered the University of Chicago where she majored in anthropology with emphasis on dance and its relation to cultures. Dunham’s first public appearance as a dancer was at the Chicago Beaux Arts Ball in “A Negro Rhapsody” in 1931. Her theatrical career matured in 1934 with her role of Reba in "Run Little Chillun” which she also directed. That year Dunham danced with the Chicago Symphony's "La Guiablesse," appeared at the Abraham Lincoln Center for two weeks with the Negro Dance Group which she had established, and danced at the Chicago World's Fair. She also began her first dance school, the Chicago Negro School of Ballet. From 1935-1936, she received a fellowship form the Rosenwald and Guggenheim Foundations to do master's thesis research in Jamaica and Haiti analyzing native dances. This research resulted in The Dances of Haiti (in Spanish and French), Island Possessed, Journey to Accompong, several articles, and a wealth of theatrical material. Dunham married John T. Pratt on July 10, 1939 in Tecate, Mexico. They adopted a daughter, Marie-Christine Dunham Pratt, when she was fourteen months old. In 1950, she completed the purchase of an 18-acre tract of land near Port-au-Prince once owned by Pauline Bonaparte LeClerc and which contained the remains of her residence.
Dunham performed worldwide. Some of her notable dance/choreography productions include “L’Ag’Ya” (1938), “Tropical Pinafore” (1939), “Le Jazz Hot,” “Tropics,” “Tropical Review” (1943), “Carib Song” (1945), “Bal Negre” (1946), “New Tropical Review” (1948), “Cakewalk” (1955), “Banboche!” (1962), “Caribbean Rhapsody” (1963), “Aida” (1963), and “Faust” (1965). She also established several dance schools such as the Dunham School of Dance and Theatre in 1945, which later became the Katherine Dunham School of Arts and Research. By 1966, she had schools in New York City (440 W. 42nd. St.) Stockholm, Paris, and Rome.
Katherine Dunham's relationship with Southern Illinois University (SIU) began July 23, 1964, when she was invited by the Vice President for Instruction, Charles D. Tenney, to spend an 11-week period as artist-in-residence. Clifford Fears, the director of that dance school, was a former member of her troupe. The culmination of her 11-week period at Southern Illinois University was the opera Faust, staged in February 1965. Her tenure at SIU was interrupted in March 1965 with her appointment to the Harlem Cultural Council Steering Committee, and work in Paris doing choreography for “Deux Angles. That same year she proposed a pilot project to the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) for East St. Louis. She again resumed her association with Southern Illinois University in June 1967 as a visiting artist in the Fine Arts Division at the Edwardsville campus. In December 1967 she was appointed Cultural Affairs Consultant in Public Administration and Metropolitan Affairs.
Katherine Dunham was also a social activist. During a performance of “Tropical Review” in Louisville, Kentucky in 1944 she announced to the audience that she would not be back in Louisville until segregation in that theater was ended. That same year she brought a discrimination lawsuit against the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago. In 1950 she sued a Sao Paulo hotel for discrimination which eventually resulted in a national law forbidding racial discrimination in places of public accommodation. Additionally, at her Haitian home, Dunham began a clinic called Habitation LeClerc for hungry and diseased Haitians.
Through the years she maintained her association with the sciences as well as the arts. She was a member of the Women's Honorary Science Fraternity (1939) and the Royal Society of Anthropology, London. Ms. Dunham died on May 21, 2006.