Cunningham, Evelyn 1916–
Evelyn Cunningham 1916–
Journalist, activist, administrator
Still going strong in her eighties, Evelyn Cunningham has had a magnificent life. During a quarter of a century in newspaper and radio journalism, she was a trailblazer—an African American woman who covered the civil rights movement from its inception, often reporting from dangerous locales. She was employed for most of that time by the Pittsburgh Courier, considered by many to be the most important African American news publication in the country for several decades. A witty, penetrating writer, Cunningham was on close terms with many of the most prominent political and cultural figures of her time.
Cunningham then pursued a second, post-journalistic career. As an activist and administrator, she has occupied a series of public and private positions, including government appointments, numerous board memberships, and executive roles in countless organizations, and for innumerable projects. In these capacities, her agenda has been to expand rights and opportunities for African Americans, women, and the poor.
Cunningham was always known for the elegant sense of style she radiated. With her charm and intelligence, she has wielded considerable influence throughout a multitude of social worlds. Cunningham is an active promoter of the arts and she encourages younger people to pursue destinies of consequence. She has always made her home in Harlem. Indeed, no other American city besides New York could possibly satisfy her requirements for cultural and social stimulation.
Cunningham was born in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, in 1916. However, her parents relocated the family to New York City soon after they heard their daughter declare her intention to pick cotton when she grew up. As she told the Daily News (New York), “My parents wanted so much more for my brother Clyde and I. No way were we going to pick cotton. We moved to Harlem, where African Americans were progressive.” Over the years, the family lived in a number of locations within the neighborhood. Cunningham’s parents encouraged their children to strive and to achieve. “My parents were very involved in my education,” she said in the News. “They wanted me to participate in programs and encouraged me to learn as much as possible. Back then, the teachers in the New York school system were first-rate role models and took a real interest in the students.”
Born Evelyn Cunningham January 25, 1916, in Elizabeth City, NC; married Austin H. Brown, 1988; three previous marriages. Education: Long Island University, B.A., social science, 1943; attended Columbia University School of Journalism and the New York School of Interior Design.
Career: Journalist; reporter, columnist, editor, and city editor, Pittsburgh Courier, 1940-62. commentator/host, “At Home With Evelyn Cunningham,” WLIB, 1961-66; communications consultant. Government: administrative assistant to Jackie Robinson, special assistant of community relations to New York Governor Rockefeller, 1967-69; deputy campaign manager, National Rockefeller for President Committee, 1968; appointed by President Richard Nixon to the Task Force on Women’s Rights and Responsibilities, 1969; special assistant to New York Governors Nelson A. Rockefeller and Malcolm Wilson, and director, Women’s Unit, Office of the Governor, 1969-74; special assistance to U.S. President Gerald Ford, office of Vice President Rockefeller, 1975-76; Rockefeller Latin America Mission, 1970; appointed to a dozen government task forces, councils, community boards, study groups, advisory committees, district commissions, 1963-90.
Selected awards: George Polk Award, on behalf of the Pittsburgh Courier, 1998; Women of the Century Award, Century Club, NYC, 1998; Harlem Renaissance Award, Abyssinian Development Corp., 1998; Honorary Doctorate from the City University of New York, 1997.
Addresses: Home —725 Riverside Drive, Apt. 8B, New York, NY 10031.
Beginning in 1940, Cunningham worked for the Pittsburgh Courier, which was the largest and most influential African American newsweekly in the country. Most of the time, she wrote from the paper’s small Harlem office on 125th Street. Cunningham was also a presence at the company’s Pittsburgh-area headquarters, where she had two nicknames: Big East and the Lynching Editor. The first was an allusion to her statuesque, elegant, 5’11” presence. The second moniker referred to her intrepid coverage of the civil rights struggle in the Deep South. From the start, Cunningham prided herself on going after the hard news, the big events of the day. She covered many stories not usually assigned to women, some of which entailed real physical risk. For example, she reported on the desegregation fight in Birmingham, Alabama, and the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama—where, as Cunningham told the Daily News, a few male reporters for the Courier were “run out of town and assaulted.”
Cunningham refers to her request for an interview with the police commissioner of Birmingham, Alabama, Eugene “Bull” Connor, as the scariest moment in her journalistic career. “Bull” Connor was a visible symbol of racism and segregation during the 1960s. “He stood there a long time,” Cunningham recounted in the New York Times. “Then he said, ‘That’s that nigger paper up North, isn’t it?’ I said, ‘yes sir.’ Then he just walked away. I was always a little ashamed of that ‘sir,’ but this man was capable of calling the dogs on me. I was there when they did that, set out the dogs. Actually, I didn’t anticipate he would give me the interview. But as a reporter, I had to give it a shot.”
Among Cunningham’s numerous leading-edge stories was her follow-up on the lynching of Isiah Nixon. After she tracked his family from South Carolina to Jacksonville, Florida, the resulting story attracted enough financial donations from readers all over the country that Nixon’s widow and their five children could build a new house. The California-based African American architect, Paul Williams, designed the residence free of charge.
Cunningham reported on the emergence of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., producing a three-part series on the King family. She told the Daily News that King’s gift included an ability to apply his philosophy to normal life. Cunningham said Dr. King’s authority as a leader rested on his constant serenity. Malcolm X was influenced by Cunningham, as he mentions in his autobiography. Malcolm spent a lot of time conversing with her at the Courier’s New York office, and spoke of her so frequently that his wife, Betty Shabazz, began to experience jealousy. She had nothing to fear, however. As Cunningham told the New York Times, “I don’t mess around with my heroes. I don’t want to see heroes in their shorts.”
On one occasion, Cunningham decided to cross the divide between the press and the events it covered. Instead of reporting on a Maryland sit-in, she opted to join the protesters. “I wanted a real-life experience,” she explained in the Daily News. “The white folks screamed at us, we screamed back, and the next thing we knew we were arrested.” When the defense lawyers, including eventual Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, chose Cunningham to serve as a witness, they stressed the need to appeal to the all-white jury’s humane emotions. “I waved the American flag, cried a bucket of tears, and told the jury that all we wanted was an equal opportunity,” Cunningham recounted. “The jury looked at each other, nodded, and the foreman announced that we were all found ‘Guilty’ and fined $101.”
Cunningham’s font of anecdotes is bottomless, and the tales frequently revolve around the century’s most note-worthy African American luminaries. According to some of her recollections in the Daily News, boxing great Joe Louis begged her to introduce him to Rose Morgan, whom he later married. Cunningham heard the baseball legend, Willie Mays, cry like a baby at the dentist’s office where she took him for treatment of a serious tooth problem. She once caught a ride with Count Basie back to New York from a show in Pittsburgh. In the New York Times, Cunningham recounted an instance when she went out to Louis Armstrong’s home in Queens, New York, for an interview. Suspecting that the classical music on his record player was intended to impress her, Cunningham inquired what it was. His reply, she recounted to the Times, was, “It’s Beethoven. You know, I play a lot of it; you can learn a lot from them cats.”
After a period as host of her own radio show on WLIB in New York, Cunningham embarked on a different phase of her life’s work. Her government service career began when she went to work for Nelson Rockefeller in 1965. Rockefeller was considered a conservative politician, but Cunningham was adept at finding common ground and opportunity for positive change virtually anywhere. As she asserted in the Daily News, Rockefeller was “a wonderful human being who opened every door possible for me.” Cunningham accompanied Rockefeller, who was then Governor of New York State, on a fact-finding tour of the Caribbean countries in mid-1969. As one of his special assistants, Cunningham had been entrusted with preparing a report on racial and women’s problems in that region.
Cunningham’s presence on the trip clearly opened a channel for dialogue. Conversing with prominent women of the region, she told Newsday, “I listened more than I talked.” Cunningham could perceive distinctions that others might have glossed over. For example, she said to Newsday, the islands were beset more with “social problems than with racial problems. There are still fairly rigid social lines divided by family, money, and schooling.” Similarly, Cunningham could interpret the vehement protests the task group encountered as “aimed at the U.S., not Rockefeller,” as she claimed in Newsday. “They are saying ‘We want your country to respect ours.’” Few other government policy analysts could have identified the underlying truths giving rise to these unruly demonstrations of “contempt and pure hatred,” as Cunningham described them.
Between 1964 and 1990, Cunningham was appointed to at least 11 government commissions by the most influential politicians of the day, including U.S. Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, New York Governors Rockefeller and Mario Cuomo, and New York City Mayor David Dinkins. In addition, she served on numerous committees, ran projects, issued reports, conducted studies, and supported reforms across a wide spectrum of issues. At the same time, Cunningham was active in a large range of private organizations, covering the arts, education, journalism, and social activism. She put a modest spin on her activities. Cunningham told the Daily News that “as a newspaper person, I met a lot of high-profile people, and many of them became friends. I am a lucky person who is rich in friends … my friends have the real power.”
Cunningham has been married four times. Her first three husbands were a basketball player, a numbers operator, and a Treasury Department employee, respectively. Her current marriage, which is the longest enduring of the four, is to Austin Brown, an expert watchmaker, community organizer, and classically trained pianist. In Essence, Cunningham expressed her views on blending marriage with a high-powered career: “My work was very exciting. I met the most interesting people, and that won’t make the average husband comfortable. I think that kind of competition was really hard. I could handle the small crises, but I didn’t really want to ‘go all the way’ to save my marriages. Fortunately, I never had children, so the breakups were less painful than they might have been, and I always quit before it got ugly.” However, in a New York Times piece, Cunningham portrayed the subject in a harsher light: “Each of my husbands tried to diminish my independence and my work. They all loved me most while I was cooking—and I am not a good cook. It’s not knowing, it’s not deliberate, it’s just the way it is. My second husband, the numbers guy, he was very wealthy. He gave me the Cadillac, he gave me the mink coat, all the good stuff. And he still insisted I wash his socks.”
Cunningham continues to be actively involved in civic affairs. Her commitment to healthy living contributes greatly to her vitality. She described her nutrition and fitness regimen to Essence in 1999, “I’m an excellent swimmer, I like to walk, and I pride myself on standing tall…. I like eating beautifully prepared foods that are good for me—fruits, vegetables, fish, and poultry.”
Harlem is a place for which Cunningham has deep affection. “Paris is beautiful in the spring, but so is Harlem,” she quipped to the Daily News. “Harlem is my home, and I will never leave it.” Cunningham’s philosophy of life is a blend of drive and acceptance. As she mused in a piece published in Essence, “I think we find happiness in retrospect. We don’t recognize it at the moment. I see the sun set every day from my home, and that’s a moment of pure joy.”
Daily News (NYC), August 24, 1996, p. 17.
Essence, July 1996 p. 64; January 1999, p. 100.
Newsday, July 9, 1969.
New York Times, April 15, 1998, B2.
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