Author Topic: Dunham's legacy is at risk of vanishing in E. St. Louis  (Read 1003 times)

Offline Reginald Hudlin

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Dunham's legacy is at risk of vanishing in E. St. Louis
« on: November 20, 2011, 10:04:41 am »

Dunham's legacy is at risk of vanishing in E. St. Louis
Leverne Backstrom and Riley Owens III, board members of the Katherine Dunham Center for Arts and Humanities, look through the iconic dancer's former East St. Louis home Thursday November 10, 2011. Copper thieves have taken wiring and pipes from walls, leaving the house with gaping holes. Photo by Robert Cohen,

EAST ST. LOUIS Dance legend Katherine Dunham left instructions for her legacy to remain planted firmly here after her death in 2006.

But a focal point of the legacy, the home in which Dunham lived off and on from the late 1960s, could soon be lost to foreclosure.

Thieves have already looted the home on Katherine Dunham Place, taking copper pipes and appliances and destroying other items inside. And two adjacent houses, once used as office space and housing for visiting dance instructors, have been boarded up for years.

Dunham's daughter, Marie-Christine Dunham Pratt, who lives in Paris, last visited the home in July. She was appalled that weeds had taken over the yard and that the interior was still a scattered mess from previous break-ins.

"It's disappointing and sad," she said.

Struggles to preserve a legacy in East St. Louis are not unique to Dunham's. The childhood home of jazz great Miles Davis has been marred recently by vandals, despite efforts to maintain it.

The foreclosure case on the Dunham home, in the courts for the last three years, stems from an unpaid loan in which the house was listed as collateral. The loan was taken out by Dunham's longtime assistant to cover operating costs for the Katherine Dunham Museum, according to court records.

The assistant, Jeanelle Stovall, died in January 2005, leaving behind a trail of questions about the money.

"Nobody knew about the loan," said Leverne Backstrom, board chairman of the Katherine Dunham Centers for Arts and Humanities. "Now we're just trying to figure out a way to get it paid and continue Mrs. Dunham's legacy."

The group oversees the Katherine Dunham Museum and the three houses, which sit two blocks away from the museum. Backstrom said the board wants to renovate the three houses, hoping to fill Dunham's home with artifacts from her overseas trips and open it to the public.

The other two structures could be turned into bed-and-breakfasts and housing for dance instructors who assist during the annual Dunham Technique dance seminar, Backstrom said. Dancers from around the world come to East St. Louis each summer to learn the famous Dunham technique, combining traditional dance with the tribal rhythms she encountered in her world travels as an anthropologist, specifically in the Caribbean and Africa.

Raising money for the renovations, though, will be a challenge. The museum generates about $80,000 a year from about a dozen tours and from a trickle of donations. The funds barely cover costs for operation costs, the seminar and a youth program that runs throughout the year.


In 2008, board members of the Katherine Dunham Centers noticed that money was being withdrawn from the nonprofit's bank account. The board learned that US Bank was garnishing the account to pay off a $50,000 loan taken out in 2001 by Stovall, who had been the assistant administrator for the museum until she died.

Dunham Pratt, Dunham's daughter, said her mother had given Stovall power of attorney to make financial decisions.

"Nobody knows what Jeanelle did with that money," Dunham Pratt said.

Backstrom said documents received from a collections company show the loan Stovall took out was supposed to help with operations costs at the museum but the centers have no record of the money being deposited in their accounts. Paperwork given to the board by the bank showed loan payments had been made regularly until Stovall's death six years ago.

In a St. Clair County courtroom in October, Judge Robert LeChien said the amount due now, after interest and penalties, was about $97,000. Meanwhile, interest on the loan continues to accrue, at about $9.50 a day, according to court records.

The three-year legal battle by US Bank to recoup the remainder of the loan could end Dec. 5. That's when LeChien will hear a motion to let lenders officially foreclose on the property. For 2011, the house was valued by the St. Clair County Tax Assessor at $5,234. In 2008, the house had an appraised value of $22,470.

"We've been trying to identify sources that might help us out in terms of saving the home," Backstrom said. "So far, it's to no avail."

Dunham Pratt has long been frustrated that her mother's legacy was not more aggressively preserved. For more than 25 years, ambitious plans have been floated to showcase Dunham's groundbreaking role in dance. Dunham founded one of the first black dance companies and performed on Broadway and in film.

Dunham Pratt has often butted heads with the board of the Dunham Centers, saying its efforts run counter to her mother's wishes.

Court documents show that the board has been a disjointed group for several years. Board members said in depositions that meetings are held infrequently, and some members rarely attend. They also admitted that record-keeping is shoddy.

In a 2009 deposition in the foreclosure case, longtime board member Theodore J. Wofford referred to Stovall as Dunham's "right hand."

"She was the center," Wofford said. "She was the one who applied for grants, chased down fundraising sources."

But he said he was not aware that Stovall actually had a seat on the board until 2008, when the foreclosure lawsuit was filed.

"That's how loose the board operated," he said.

Charlotte Ottley, who once acted as a liaison for Dunham in the St. Louis area, said the state of the dancer's home is more devastating because it had been fully renovated beginning in 2004. Ottley said Dunham had moved to New York for treatment of various ailments but decided 'she wanted to come home."

A $200,000 grant and money from friends and fans helped replace plumbing and insulation and install a new roof, a deck on the second floor and an elevator, among other items. Dunham lived in the home less than a month in 2005 before heading back to New York, where she died in May 2006.


About a mile from the Dunham homes and museum is a nondescript house at the corner of Kansas Avenue and North 17th Street that was the childhood residence of Miles Davis.

Like the Dunham home, there is little left to signal the significance of the property. The Davis home is surrounded by overgrown weeds and bushes. Windows are boarded up. The aluminum siding has been stripped.

"It is especially sad when two prominent names associated with East St. Louis, when their legacies are being disrespected like this," said Andrew Theising, a political science professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville who has written extensively on East St. Louis history. "One of the hopes for East St. Louis is building on these legacies of its famous."

A spokesman for the Davis family referred all questions to the official website on the revered trumpeter, who died in 1991.

"The family has hired a contractor, whose team regularly visits the home to resecure and update as necessary," a press release posted on the site says. "Unfortunately, the vandalism occurs much quicker than the regular recovery efforts set forth."

Mayor Alvin Parks Jr. said East St. Louis can't afford to take ownership of either home.

"Whenever you have someone with the names Miles Davis and Katherine Dunham, you want anything connected to them to be in tiptop physical condition and in a way we could be proud of them," Parks said. "You also have to look with your priorities that you can do all you can do with what you have."

The fate of the Dunham properties remains unclear. With no staff, Backstrom finds herself running the museum tours, making calls for donations and trying to find a way to get the home out of foreclosure.

"The incentive for me," Backstrom said, "is to keep something positive in the city of East St. Louis."

Dunham's daughter tries to stay upbeat about her mother's legacy. The main post office in East St. Louis is named in honor of her mother. And a collection of stamps paying tribute to four groundbreaking choreographers will be released next summer. Dunham is among them.

"Something good has come out of this," Dunham Pratt said. "That's something."

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Offline Battle

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Re: Dunham's legacy is at risk of vanishing in E. St. Louis
« Reply #1 on: November 20, 2011, 02:47:02 pm »
Sheesh...! :-[

Vandals are like vultures picking on raw flesh. :P