Perhaps the most famous African American alumna of the University of Chicago even today is dancer Katherine Dunham. Her brother Albert had preceded her to the University, where he earned an AB, MA, and PhD degree in Philosophy (1928, 1931, 1933).
Albert (born in 1907) and Katherine (born in 1909) were raised in Glen Ellyn and Joliet, Illinois. Katherine matriculated at the University in 1928 and gravitated to the intellectual circles surrounding Professor of Anthropology, and later Dean of the Social Sciences, Robert Redfield. Her future husband and set designer, Canadian John Pratt, was also a student of Redfield, as were other artistically-inclined students, for instance the future writer Marian Minus, with whom the novelist Richard Wright was for a time in love.
Dunham soon left the University to pursue both dance and ethnographic study of dance in the Caribbean on a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship under the supervision of Melville Herskovitz of Northwestern University. She returned to the University and earned her PhB in 1936. She immediately began pursuit of a PhD in Anthropology.
The coursework with Redfield provided Dunham and her fellow students with access to non-Western cultural traditions, which they then drew on throughout their lives to fuel their artistic production. Deciding that her true calling was the theater, Dunham moved to New York and founded the Katherine Dunham Dance Company.
She died in 2006 as one of the artistic luminaries of the United States.
1. Photograph of Katherine Dunham with child, undated. Archival Photographic Files.
4. John Pratt. "The Art of Hawaii and New Zealand: A Contrast and Comparison", [ca. 1935-1936]. Robert Redfield Papers.
Dunham and Pratt would break social taboos and laws in several states to marry across race lines in 1939. They were married until Pratt’s death in 1986. An artist, Pratt also became Dunham’s set designer.