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Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Katherine Dunham has died

CSMS StaffKatherine Dunham, the star that will forever shine in the firmament, passed away yesterday in her sleep at her home in Illinois. She was 96. CSMS Magazine salutes the life of this great African American woman whose experiences in living in Haiti helped change her life in a profound way. Most modern-day Haitians did not know of Miss. Dunham until her famous 47-day hunger strike designed to attract American public opinion on the plight of the Haitian people during the bloody dictatorship of the military government that overthrew Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power in 1990. Then, she was 82.   She was born in Joliet, Illinois in 1909, and later became one of the first African Americans to attend the University of Chicago where she majored in anthropology. In 1930, she graduated with a doctorial degree in the same field. With help from the “Rosenwald Fellowship, she completed groundbreaking work on Caribbean and Brazilian dance anthropology as a new academic discipline.  In 1931, Miss Dunham established her first dance school in Chicago.  She began one of the most successful dance careers in the American and European theater in 1934, which led to leading roles in musicals, operas and cabarets throughout the world.”    In 1935, Miss Dunham visited Haiti, and immediately fell in love with the place for “its beautiful colonial buildings, which gave you the impression that you were entering a tropical paradise,” she said in 1993 to journalist Marcus Garcia in Miami. Since 1935, she would make Haiti her half home, where she would live half of the year. According to Summerville Joan,  “The West Indian experience changed forever the focus of Dunham’s life, and caused a profound shift in her career. This initial fieldwork provided the nucleus for future researches and began a lifelong involvement with the people and dance of Haiti.”   “From this Dunham generated her master’s thesis (Northwestern University, 1947) and more fieldwork. She lectured widely, published numerous articles, and wrote three books about her observations: JOURNEY TO ACCOMPONG (1946), THE DANCES OF HAITI (her master’s thesis, published in 1947), and ISLAND POSSESSED (1969), underscoring how African religions and rituals adapted to the New World.”     Miss Dunham earned credit for developing “one of the most important pedagogues for teaching dance which is still used throughout the world.”  In the late 1930’s, Miss Dunham married Mr. John Pratt, one of America’s most highly regarded theatrical designers. Together, they formed a powerful creative team that lasted until Pratt’s death in the 1986.       In 1967, Miss Dunham joined the faculty of Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, where she helped create a performing arts training center and established a dance anthropology program.  In 1969, Miss Dunham created a community-based arts education program in East St. Louis, called the Katherine Dunham Centers for the Arts and Humanities. This was in fact a perfect museum in which a room was designed and called “The Haitian Room” where one can find a collection of paintings, furniture pieces, carvings, macramé, thunderstones, and art relics from the Caribbean and African cultures.  Several of the furniture pieces that are displayed were designed by Miss Dunham and crafted by Haitian artisans.    The centers seek to provide Metro East residents with an opportunity to witness and participate in all of the fine, performing and cultural arts.  The centers are the St. Louis Metropolitan region’s only multi-disciplinary arts organizations devoted to the study, appreciation and celebration of diverse cultures.   Miss. Dunham’s intellectual, artistic, and humanitarian contributions have earned her many coveted awards over the years, including the Presidential Medal of Arts, the Kennedy Center Honors, French Legion of Honor, Southern Cross of Brazil, Grand Cross of Haiti, NAACP Lifetime Achievement Award, Lincoln Academy Laureate, and the Urban Leagues’ Lifetime Achievement Award.  Miss Dunham was one of 75 women whose lives were celebrated in the book, I Have A Dream.Sources are from Katherine Dunham biography.

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