Born in 1909, Katherine Dunham became an internationally famous dancer and choreographer after studying dance and ethnography in the Caribbean as a student of anthropology at the University of Chicago. While working in 1931 as the dance director of the Chicago Negro Theater Unit of the Federal Theatre Project in Chicago, she met artist and theatrical designer John Pratt, who became her manager. They married in 1949 and adopted their daughter, Marie-Christine, from a Catholic convent nursery in Paris.
Dunham started the first all-black dance troupe and innovated the Dunham technique, a mixture of Caribbean ethnic dances with classical American ballet and modern dance. Heavily influenced by her research in the Caribbean, Dunham was also exposed to Spanish, East Indian, Javanese, and Balinese dance forms by Ludmilla Speranzeva, Mark Turbyfill, and Ruth Page, her ballet teachers at the University of Chicago. As part of the Federal Theatre Project, Dunham's composition L'Ag'Ya, in 1938, integrated elements of a Martinique fighting dance into American ballet.
After the success of L'Ag'Ya, Dunham and her dancers were invited to participate in the 1939 Broadway production of Pins and Needles, first presented on the Labor Stage by the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union in 1936. In 1940, the Katherine Dunham Dancers went on to perform on Broadway and toured in George Balanchine's Cabin in the Sky, choreographed largely by Dunham. By 1941, the Dunham Company was appearing on television and in films such as Carnival of Rhythm and Stormy Weather in addition to Broadway productions and Chicago, Las Vegas, and Hollywood clubs. Though not fully appreciated in 1947, Dunham's choreography depicting life on State Street for the Chicago ballet Windy City was credited by Jerome Robbins as inspiration for his choreography of West Side Story. Dunham spent most of the next decade on tour internationally until financial stress led her to disband her company and retreat to Japan in 1957 to work on her memoires. In 1961, she established a major school of dance in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
From 1964 to 1965, Dunham served as artist-in-residence at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, choreographing Gounod's Faust. In 1966, she traveled abroad to train and choreograph Ballet National de Senegal and assist President Leopold Senghor with arrangements for the First Pan-African World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar. Moving to the Edwardsville campus of SIU in 1967, Dunham founded the Performing Arts Training Center in East St. Louis and was briefly jailed for protesting the arrest of student activists.
In the late 1970s, she opened the Katherine Dunham Dynamic Museum, featuring her collection of African and Haitian art. In addition to her dedication to the performing arts, she served as a counselor to disadvantaged youth and published a number of books about her life and cultural experiences, including Journey to Accompong (1946), A Touch of Innocence: Memoirs of Childhood (1959), Island Possessed (1969), and Dances of Haiti (1984). Among her many public humanitarian efforts, Dunham staged a 47-day hunger strike to highlight the plight of Haitian refugees in 1992. She passed away in New York City in 2006 at the age of 96.
Two collections and a vertical file at Southern Illinois University's Morris Library document Dunham's inspiring life and career as an anthropologist, dancer, choreographer, and educator. The Katherine Dunham Vertical File Manuscript, 1965-, features two letters to Dunham in 1965 from James F. Macandrew, WNYE Director of Broadcasting, and David Astor.
The Katherine Dunham Photograph Collection, 1930-1973, consists of photographs and negatives documenting Dunham's family, dance career, and teaching career. There are also around 400 photographs taken in the 1930s by Katherine Dunham while conducting research in the Caribbean for her graduate degree. The Special Collections Research Center of Morris Library has made hundreds of the photographs available in their Digital Collections.
The Katherine Dunham papers, 1906-2006, includes correspondence, writings, scripts, notes on dance technique, and musical scores. Comprising the bulk of the collection, her personal correspondents include Josephine Baker, Harry Belafonte, Doris Duke, W. C. Handy, Langston Hughes, Eartha Kitt, Butterfly McQueen, Anthony Quinn, and Paul Robeson, whose career is documented in the Herbert Marshall collection of Paul Robeson, 1934-1974.
Dunham, Katherine. 1971 (1946). Journey to Accompong. Greenwood.
Dunham, Katherine. 1983 (1947). The Dances of Haiti. University of California Center for Afro-American Studies.
Dunham, Katherine. 1980 (1959). A Touch of Innocence: Memoirs of Childhood. Books for Libraries.
Dunham, Katherine. 1969. Island Possessed. Doubleday.
Aschenbrenner, Joyce. 1981. Katherine Dunham. Congress on Research in Dance.
Beckford, Ruth. 1979. Katherine Dunham: A Biography. Dekker.
Clark, Veve A. and Sara E. Johnson, eds. 2006. Kaiso!: An Anthology of Writings by and about Katherine Dunham, University of Wisconsin.
Dominy, Jeannine. 1992. Katherine Dunham. Black Americans of Achievement Series. Chelsea House.