By Art Holliday
EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. (KSDK) - Broadway and film performer. Founder of one of the first black dance companies. So famous she's on a postage stamp. Dance legend Katherine Dunham traveled the world, collecting art that's on display at the Dunham Museum in East St. Louis.
But the nearby house where she lived for nearly 40 years on Katherine Dunham Place is a sad sight: broken windows, overgrown grass and weeds, a stack of trash bags on the side of the house. That's where the story begins.
Part of Dunham's legacy is the annual Dunham Dance Seminar which attracts people from all over the world. Last Saturday the seminar participants, including people from France and Germany, made a pilgrimage to the Dunham house, where they discovered the destructive handiwork of vandals in search of copper and other metal to sell.
"It was kind of a shame that people would go through this house of this amazing woman looking for spare change and copper wire," said St. Louisan Isaac Parker, one of the dance seminar attendees.
Parker was in the group of Dunham admirers who ventured into the basement of her home last weekend.
"It was insane the amount of the amount of artwork she kept in the basement," said Parker.
There were drums, and masks, and carved wooden statues. He and the other seminar participants recognized the importance of the artifacts collected by Dunham during her decades of world travel. They alerted the museum and started hauling artwork from the basement.
"We were pulling out the first load of things from the basement," said Parker, "and someone said 'Man, I wish we had a truck.' I said, 'I know someone who has a truck.'"
Parker called his dad, who drove his pickup truck to East St. Louis. They loaded up the back of the truck and moved the artwork to the Katherine Dunham Museum one block away.
Inside the museum, master dance instructor Ruby Streate points out some of the new discoveries that might eventually be displayed at the Dunham Museum.
"This is the bust that I was telling you about that we found," said Streate. "This is a bust of one of her famous choreographies called Rarotonga and it depicts the life of the Polynesian culture."
Streate says the museum was unaware how much was stashed in the basement of Dunham's home.
"Anything that belonged to Katherine Dunham had value because it's historic. The seminar participants felt that whatever they could retrieve was important and they didn't know what they were going to find," she said.
What they found was a reminder that Katherine Dunham was a citizen of the world who collected numerous artifacts during her travels. For Dunham admirer Isaac Parker, it was an unforgettable discovery.
"That's the closest I've come to being an archaeologist. It was really pretty neat to think that no one had seen this in years," he said.
Thieves have repeatedly looted the Dunham home, making it all the more remarkable that so much of the artwork and artifacts were left behind, undamaged.
"It's distressing to know the people have so little regard for the legacy of this great lady," said Streate.
She says the next step for The Dunham Centers for Arts and Humanities is to catalogue the artwork and determine its value.