Katherine Dunham was born June 22, 1909 in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. She formed a dance group that performed in concert at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1934 and with the Chicago Civic Opera company 1935–1936. In 1938 she joined the Federal Theater Project in Chicago and composed a ballet. Two years later she formed an all-black company, which began touring extensively by 1943.
Dunham and her company toured North and South America in the 1940s and 1950s, fighting segregation along the way. In 1952, the management of a hotel in Brazil refused to let Dunham join her husband, John Pratt, in his hotel suite because she was black and he was white. Dunham, who had been married to Pratt since 1940, filed a lawsuit against the hotel, and as a result, the Brazilian legislature quickly passed a bill outlawing discrimination in public places. In addition to touring with her company, which disbanded in 1957, Dunham operated a dance school in New York from 1944 through 1954. She also choreographed many ballets, stage shows and films, including the movies, “Stormy Weather” and “Pardon My Sarong.” During this same period, she and her husband adopted their daughter, Marie Christine.
In 1992 Dunham went on a 47-day hunger strike to protest the exclusionary U.S. policy toward Haitian refugees. Due to political unrest in their homeland, thousands of Haitians fled their country for the United States in the early 1990s. In 1991 and 1992, the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted some 35,000 Haitian refugees as they tried to enter the United States. Most of them were returned to Haiti.
In 2000 Katherine Dunham was named America’s irreplaceable Dance Treasure. The living Dunham tradition has persisted. She was a woman far ahead of her time. Her technique was “a way of life”.
Katherine Dunham died on May 21 2006.