Understanding Our Roots, 

Live In The Moment, As We Grow Together Towards The Future!

“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.”  

Fredrick Douglas

Elizabeth Catlett 

Visual Arts Exhibitions

Catlett, a granddaughter of slaves, was born into a middle-class Washington family; her father was a professor of mathematics at Tuskegee Institute. After being disallowed entrance into the Carnegie Institute of Technology because she was black, Catlett enrolled at Howard University (B.S., 1935), where she studied design, printmaking, and drawing and was influenced by the art theories of Alain Locke and James A. Porter. While working as a muralist for two months during the mid-1930s with the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration, she became influenced by the social activism of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. 

Catlett is known largely for her sculpture, especially for works such as Homage to My Young Black Sisters (1968) and various mother-child pairings, the latter of which became one of her central themes. She was also an accomplished printmaker who valued prints for their affordability and hence their accessibility to many people. Catlett alternately chose to illustrate famous subjects, such as Harriet Tubman and Malcolm X, and anonymous workers—notably, strong, solitary black women—as depicted in the terra-cotta sculpture Tired (1946). Other notable works include the linocuts Sharecropper (1968) and Survivor (1983) and the lithograph Negro es bello (1968; “Black Is Beautiful”). She remained a working artist into her 90s.

August Wilson 

Playmakers Festival 

August Wilson was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1945. The son of a white father who was rarely around his family and a black mother who struggled to raise her six children on welfare and her meager income from janitorial jobs, Wilson learned at first hand about the hardships and prejudice facing black people in American society.

August Wilson is perhaps the most famous representative of African American theater. His plays are most likely to appear in anthologies as representative works of African American drama. But what truly sets Wilson apart from other authors is his signature achievement of having written ten dramas documenting the African American experience. Dubbed “The Pittsburgh Cycle,” the plays each take place in a different decade of the twentieth century. Stylistically, Wilson’s work combines seemingly disparate elements to create a uniquely poetic take on realism; his characters, for example, speak in the vernacular, but the words flow as if they were reciting verse. Sprinkled with mystical elements (such as a recurring character who is several hundred years old), Wilson’s plays portray the African American experience as the intersection of history, poetry, and everyday life.

Oscar Micheaux 

Black Film Festival

Oscar Micheaux (October 2, 1884 – 1951) was a pioneering African American author and filmmaker, and without a doubt the most famous producer of race films.

Micheaux, was born near Metropolis, Illinois and grew up in Great Bend, Kansas, one of eleven children of former slaves. 

Given the attitudes and restrictions on black people at the time, Micheaux overcame them by forming his own publishing company to buy his books door-to-house.

The advent of the motion picture industry intrigued him as a vehicle to tell his stories. He formed his own movie production company and in 1919 became the first African-American to make a film. He wrote, directed and produced the silent motion picture The Homesteader, starring the pioneering African American actress Evelyn Preer and based on his novel of the same name. He again used autobiographical elements in The Exile, his first feature film with sound, in which the central character leaves Chicago to buy and operate a ranch in South Dakota. In 1924 he introduced the moviegoing world to Paul Robeson in his film, Body and Soul.

Given the times, his accomplishments in publishing and film are extraordinary, including being the first African-American to produce a film to be shown in “white” movie theaters. In his motion pictures, he moved away from the “Negro” stereotypes being portrayed in film at the time. Additionally, in his film Within Our Gates, Micheaux attacked the racism depicted in D.W. Griffith’s film, The Birth of a Nation.

The Producers Guild of America called him “The most prolific black – if not most prolific independent – filmmaker in American cinema.” Over his illustrious career, Cledisson Micheaux wrote, produced and directed forty-four feature-length films between 1919 and 1948 and wrote seven novels, one of which was a national bestseller.

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Juba Dance Festival

Katherine Dunham

June 22, 1909 - May 21, 2006

Legendary dancer, choreographer and anthropologist Katherine Dunham was born June 22, 1909, to an African American father and French-Canadian mother who died when she was young. At an early age, Dunham became interested in dance. However, she did not seriously pursue a career in the profession until she was a student at the University of Chicago.

During her studies, Dunham attended a lecture on anthropology, where she was introduced to the concept of dance as a cultural symbol. Intrigued by this theory, Dunham began to study African roots of dance and, in 1935, she traveled to the Caribbean for field research. Dunham was exposed to sacred ritual dances performed by people on the islands of Haiti and Jamaica. She returned to the United States in 1936 informed by new methods of movement and expression, which she incorporated into techniques that transformed the world of dance.

In 1940, she formed the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, which became the premier facility for training dancers. Alumnae include Eartha Kitt, Marlon Brando and Julie Belafonte. Dunham is credited with introducing international audiences to African aesthetics and establishing African dance as a true art form. Called the “Matriarch of Black Dance,” her groundbreaking repertoire combined innovative interpretations of Caribbean dances, traditional ballet, African rituals and African American rhythms to create the Dunham Technique, which she performed with her dance troupe in venues around the world. Her many original works include L’ag’ya, Shango and Bal Negre. She also choreographed and appeared in Broadway musicals, operas and the film Cabin in the Sky.

The Dunham troupe toured for two decades, stirring audiences around the globe with their dynamic and highly theatrical performances. These experiences provided ample material for the numerous books, articles and short stories Dunham authored.

Dunham accepted a position at Southern Illinois University in East St. Louis in the 1960s. During her tenure, she secured funding for the Performing Arts Training Center, where she introduced a program designed to channel the energy of the community’s youth away from gangs and into dance. Dunham was always a formidable advocate for racial equality, boycotting segregated venues in the United States and using her performances to highlight discrimination. She made national headlines by staging a hunger strike to protest the U.S. government’s repatriation policy for Haitian immigrants.

Throughout her distinguished career, Dunham earned numerous honorary doctorates, awards and honors. She was the recipient of a Kennedy Center Honors Award, the Plaque d'Honneur Haitian-American Chamber of Commerce Award, and a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.

Dunham passed away on Sunday, May 21, 2006 at the age of 96.