EAST ST. LOUIS — African culture and art were on full display Saturday at the grand opening of the Sunshine Cultural Arts Center in the old William Morrison School building.
Sylvester "Sunshine" Lee, executive director of the center, said his mission is to raise awareness of the Sunshine Cultural Arts Center as a safe haven for children.
He said he has taught four generations of families.
"If we get the baby, we get the mom and daddy and we keep the whole family together," he said.
Lee studied 10 years under the late Katherine Dunham, a world renowned dancer and choreographer.
Dunham named him "Sunshine" because he was always smiling, Eugene Redmond, the Poet Laureate of East St. Louis, told the crowd.
"He loves children and is concerned about our community. He deserves this building," Minister Donald Muhammad said.
Classes in African dancing, African drumming, modern dance, ballet, tap and jazz dance will be taught there as well as Zumba. The building, which is at 630 N. 59th St., will be open from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Lee said there will be after school tutoring for children and help for anyone who has homework.
"Homework and tutoring are a priority. Then, the children will be allowed to take saxophone, piano and flute lessons."
Right now, children are able to participate in the center free thanks to some grant money, Lee said.
He said the gym holds 800 people. And, already they've hosted a midnight basketball game that brought about 600 people to the center.
On Saturday, parents and visitors toured the building to see what it has to offer. On the walls are pictures of people in different parts of Africa as well as African-American historical figures and those who've participated in boxing and the arts.
Young boys and older men came together and showed the large crowd what an African drumming session looks like. Three-year-old Rashad Bolden stole the show as he stroked his Gemba African drum and looked like he had been playing it for 100 years. He was the smallest one in the group, but he played his drum like he was the elder.
Then, young female dancers sashayed in to the room and gave the audience a taste of what African dance looks like with the drums as the backdrop.
Roger Barnes, who is a friend of board President Ray Landis, said the drummers and dancers thrilled him.
His wife, Jan Barnes said, "To see these young people participate with such passion and energy tells me that this place has a real chance to succeed."
Thirteen-year-old Darrion Loveless played the bass African drum and his 15-year-old sister Ambera Loveless was one of the dancers.
Their mother, Deborah Loveless, said her son had only been playing for three months and loves it.
"I love it, too. I am so happy they brought our history back.
"We didn't have black history in school when I was a student. I think it is important that our children know our history. I hope everyone comes here. There's a lot to learn and do," Loveless said.
TiJuana Macon said she plans to spread the word. She was stirred by what she saw Saturday, too.
"I enjoyed my day here. I would not have missed it for anything. This is something positive for our youth and lots of children should be able to get involved in this."
Landis said, "The center is a safe haven for children for children and families to grow and discover their creative gifts. We really want to make the arts accessible to all children -- give everyone the opportunity experience the benefits of an arts education."
The renovation of the school building is not finished yet and the center is looking for donations. For more information, call 618-977-1476.
Contact reporter Carolyn P. Smith at 618-239-2503.