Evelyn Cunningham: The Pittsburgh Courier’s “Lynching Editor”

Evelyn Cunningham: The Pittsburgh Courier’s “Lynching Editor”

Under review by Journalism, Sage Publishing 

Abstract

From 1943 to 1962, Evelyn Cunningham was a reporter and columnist for the Pittsburgh Courier, a leading black newspaper. She also spent five years as a radio host, interviewing newsmakers ranging from Malcolm X to Sammy Davis Jr. Known as the “lynching editor,” Cunningham was among the few women who covered the hot spots of the Civil Rights Movement. She chronicled an important chapter in U.S. history, not only as a correspondent for the black press but also as a stringer for New York dailies. However, little is known about Cunningham’s role as a journalist and witness to history. My ongoing research attempts to correct this through in-depth interviews with Cunningham, her peers, and observers, as well as a review of her work, papers, and articles about this pioneer.

Literature Review

Evelyn Cunningham interviews Mamie Eisenhower during the 1052 presidential campaign. (Photo courtesy of Evelyn Cunningham)

Evelyn Cunningham interviews Mamie Eisenhower during the 1052 presidential campaign. (Photo courtesy of Evelyn Cunningham)

Unlike black journalists Ida B. Wells, Mary Shadd Cary, Charlotta Bass, Alice Dunnigan, Evelyn Payne, Ted Poston, and John H. Johnson, no books and few articles have been devoted to Evelyn Cunningham’s career. She considered writing an autobiography, but even at the age of 94 she was still reluctant to betray confidential sources long dead and took many secrets to her grave. However, some of her papers have been archived at the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University in New Orleans, and her oral history is part of the National Visionary Leadership Project, established by Camille Cosby and Renee Poussaint. Cunningham was also featured on TheHistoryChannel.com, an online video for “Democracy Now!” and Soldiers Without Swords, a PBS documentary on the black press by Stanley Nelson. Some of her articles were digitized as part of the ProQuest Historical Newspapers (Pittsburgh Courier: 1911-2002).

In addition, her later career in public service was documented through “A Few Good Women: Advancing the Cause for Women in the U.S. Government,” Oral History Collection, 1938-2000, MGN 984, Penn State University Archives, Special Collections Library, University Libraries, Pennsylvania State University. Most of the text written about Cunningham is limited to newspaper articles; a journal article in Anales del Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Numero X 2004, Madrid, Spain, and citations in volumes such as Contemporary Black Biography. She is conspicuously absent from books on the black press or on women journalists, including Women and the Press: The Struggle for Equality by Patricia Bradley, Raising Her Voice: African-American Women Journalists Who Changed History by Rodger Streitmatter or the hefty double volume Black Women in America.

Because Cunningham witnessed so much history and interviewed so many newsmakers, her anecdotes and short quotations are included in a number of books, including Freedom’s Sword: The NAACP and the Struggle against Racism in America, 1909–1969 by Gilbert S. Jonas; Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary by Juan Williams; Born to Win: The Authorized Biography of Althea Gibson by Frances Clayton Gray and Yanick Rice Lamb; Like a Mighty Stream: The March on Washington, Aug. 28, 1963 by Patrik Henry Bass; and Meet Me at the Theresa: The Story of Harlem’s Most Famous Hotel by Sondra Kathryn Wilson.

In The African-American Newspaper: Voice of Freedom, Patrick S. Washburn recognized the importance of black press reporters like Cunningham and those who preceded her in chronicling U.S. history. “These were extraordinary journalists who lived in extraordinary times, and telling their stories and the stories of their newspapers is important because it is a tale that is largely unknown by both blacks and whites,” Washburn wrote. “By examining this history, and how it fit into what was occurring in America, one begins to get a better perspective of the country’s past than can be gained by studying only the usual lily-white picture.”[1]

Evelyn Cunningham:

The Pittsburgh Courier’s “Lynching Editor”

Fear shook Evelyn Cunningham to her core as she strolled out to the middle of a Birmingham street where Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor held court. Although she knew her mission might be futile, Cunningham sought an interview with the segregationist who embarrassed the United States by turning snarling dogs, high-pressure fire hoses, and billy clubs on black adults and children alike who simply craved freedom.

“Mr. Connor, I would like the opportunity to interview you, Sir, for my newspaper,” Cunningham told the police commissioner.

“What paper you at?”

“The Pittsburgh Courier.”

“Oh, that’s that nigger paper up North, huh?”

“It really shocked me that he would put it that way,” Cunningham recalled. “I knew that he was capable of it, but somehow I just figured that he wouldn’t do it to a newspaper person who happened to be black and a woman.”

Cunningham, along with Ethel Payne of the Chicago Defender, was among the few women who covered the hot spots of the Civil Rights Movement. She begged for such assignments and came to be known as the “lynching editor.” Rather than take her notepad and pen to teas, fashion shows, debutante balls, and club meetings, she preferred not only to go where the male reporters went, but also in their stead since black men faced a greater risk of being lynched.[2] And few spots were hotter than Birmingham, dubbed “Bombingham” for its rash of explosions in places where Negroes lived and worshipped. From 1957 to 1963, at least 18 such bombings and 50 cross burnings were reported in Alabama’s largest city.[3] In reporting such incidents, as well as the related issues, consequences, key players, movers and shakers, Cunningham chronicled an important chapter in U.S. history. She accomplished this not only as a correspondent for the black press but also as a stringer for the New York Times, the New York Daily News and the New York Post.

By most accounts, Cunningham had good reason to fear Connor, a Ku Klux Klan member who had vowed to maintain the separatist status quo “to the utmost of my ability and by all lawful means.” Still, , Cunningham remained disappointed in herself for expressing a bit of deference to Connor by responding, “Yes, Sir.”

“I’ve asked God to forgive me to this day for saying it,” Cunningham explained at the age of 90 in 2006. “I was scared to death. It’s daylight. I’m in the middle of the square. He is not going to lynch me. He is not going to hit me. Nothing’s going to happen to me that will hurt me, because of the circumstances. But I was so frightened when he said, ‘That’s that nigger paper up North,’ and I said, ‘Yes sir.’ I hate myself for that, but I was scared.

“Even with all those people Bull Connor was capable of saying that I tried to attack him or something, or that I was carrying a gun. He just laughed, and I knew we were not going to have an interview. What a horrible person, horrible human being.”

This was a rare interview that never materialized, for Cunningham interviewed everyone from Cuban President Fidel Castro to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.[4] during his formative years as a leader and later as he reached iconic status as the 1964 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.[5] “Everybody in the South knew about Martin Luther King,” Cunningham recalled, but the mainstream media was slow to catch on. “It took a long time for them to understand that Martin Luther King was news.” She said that she put the New York Times in the position of being the first mainstream news outlet to cover King as one of its stringers.[6]

“Evelyn Cunningham and Ethel Payne were two of the most prominent women in journalism during the fifties and sixties,” said Ofield Dukes, who covered boxers Archie Moore and Kid Galivan as a cub reporter for the Courier after graduating with a journalism degree from Wayne State University in Detroit in 1958. Cunningham, who worked out of the Courier’s Harlem office as well as its Pittsburgh headquarters, was a “powerful and influential voice” at a paper that was also powerful and influential, added Dukes, president of Ofield Dukes & Associates in Washington, D.C., and former assistant editor of the Michigan Chronicle before joining the Johnson-Humphrey administration in 1964.[7]

The modern version of the paper, now called the New Pittsburgh Courier, touts its storied past:

“Established in 1907 by Edwin Harleston, a guard in the H.J. Heinz food-packing plant, the Pittsburgh Courier gained national prominence after attorney Robert Lee Vann became the newspaper’s editor and publisher, treasurer, and legal counsel in 1910. In his lifetime, Vann saw the Courier grow to become the largest, most influential black newspaper in the nation with a circulation of 250,000 and over 400 employees in 14 cities.”[8]

What made the paper a must-read, Dukes noted, was the inclusion of thought-provoking writers like Cunningham, revered columnist George S. Schuyler, veteran journalist and executive editor Percival L. Prattis, and Morehouse College President Benjamin E. Mays.[9]  In A History of the Black Press, Armistead S. Pride and Clint C. Wilson II also single out the Courier and the Chicago Defender for praise: “No other newspaper could match the prestigious array of national and regional figures that these two newspapers offered from week to week, discoursing on topics of deep concern to the Negro.”[10] According to Roland E. Wolseley, author of The Black Press, U.S.A., acclaimed author James Baldwin described the Courier as “a high class paper” and “the best of the lot.”[11]

The Courier, and by extension, Evelyn Cunningham, upheld the legacy of the black press, born on the pages of Freedom’s Journal on March 16, 1827. In the inaugural issue of Freedom’s Journal, according to Pride and Wilson, “the editors announced that to offset any misrepresentations in publications originating from others who ‘too long have spoken for us,’ often ‘to the discredit to any person of colour,’ the Journal aspired to provide the Negro with his own forum. It said, in short, ‘We wish to plead our own cause.’”[12]

The need for a black press has remained strong since the days of Freedom’s Journal “mainly because all the old battles have not yet been won and because there are so many new ones,” Wolseley wrote.[13] He also noted that nearly 100 black newspapers were founded in 1902 alone and that 1,400 were established between then and 1950. “The black press was the only one reporting the news of black America; except for crime there was almost no news of it in the white press.”[14] In The African-American Newspaper: Voice of Freedom, Patrick S. Washburn wrote that the Civil Rights Movement “owed a heavy debt to black newspapers.” The “powerful and compelling form of advocacy journalism,” Washburn explained, fueled the momentum of civil rights leaders by helping to create an environment for them to push for equality “at a far higher level than if the black press had not existed.”[15]

The challenges of U.S. race relations made the successes of black journalists, particularly women journalists, all the more noteworthy. “Work on black publications, especially newspapers, is more difficult than on white, since the black paper does not have the entrée accorded the white, as a rule,” Wolseley pointed out. “If black journalism is more nearly a man’s job than white journalism, women make less progress in it.” Wolseley attributed this in part to gender roles. “Black women, even more so than black men, have had little chance to obtain journalism training.”[16] Patricia Bradley, author of Women and the Press: The Struggle for Equality, concurred.[17] However, Cunningham succeeded in pushing past gender and training barriers.

Ink in Her Veins

Born January 25, 1916, in Elizabeth City, N.C., Cunningham and her brother, Clyde, grew up believing that they could do anything. “My parents were the best,” Cunningham said. “They kept my brother and I abreast of everything—and got us the hell out of Elizabeth City early.” Her parents, Clyde and Mary Long, were avid newspapers readers in North Carolina and later in Harlem where the family later settled when she was about 5 years old. The columnists who captivated her parents’ attention soon drew hers. “They had power, and it had nothing to do with guns. They were always quoted, and that to me was a kind of power. I was beginning to write a little bit in school, and I liked it and I got good marks and it was easy.” Cunningham, who wrote essays and short stories, started thinking about journalism. “It seemed like a way to get paid,” she recalled. “There were no other occupations I was interested in. I was not interested in getting married and having children. I had a strong sense that people who wrote things had a lot of power, because people stopped and listened.” Her grandmother, Ellen Whitehurst, had planted a seed long before the Cunninghams relocated to Harlem. Whitehurst was a reporter for the “colored section” of the Daily Advance in Elizabeth City. Cunningham would excitedly quickly flip through the pages of the Advance to find her grandmother’s byline.

As a student at Long Island University in Brooklyn, N.Y., Cunningham landed a part-time job at the Pittsburgh Courier through her aunt’s friend who was the New York editor. Her father, a pianist and owner of a cab company, purchased a second-hand typewriter and taught her how to use it. Cunningham’s initial assignment was to scour daily newspaper articles for story ideas. “What I want you to do,” the editor told her, “is to read the New York Times everyday and cut out every story that you feel has an appeal to Negroes or is about Negroes or is related to Negroes. Just clip all those stories in the New York Times, and I want you to rewrite all of those stories.”

“It was a lot of fun, and I found it easy to translate those stories for a black audience,” Cunningham said. What wasn’t so fun was hearing gunfire outside the newsroom during a riot on August 1, 1943, which left a half-dozen dead and nearly 200 people injured. The riot was apparently sparked after police tried to arrest a black woman with a soldier.[18] Still, Cunningham enjoyed being in the heart of her beloved Harlem. The Courier’s New York bureau was at 127th Street and Seventh Avenue, near the Hotel Theresa, dubbed the “Waldorf Astoria of Harlem” and at one time the area’s tallest building. In 1943, she had also graduated from Long Island University with a social sciences degree and to full-time status at the paper. Eventually, she was “conned” into moving to the slower-paced headquarters. “I got a raise, of course, but I didn’t like Pittsburgh the city very much,” said Cunningham, who was nicknamed “Big East” since she stood out at 5’11 with her confident and bubbly personality, sharp wit, red hair, signature pearls, and often a mink draping her tall, lean frame.

“I was covering women’s things—club meetings, tea parties, weddings, engagements—strictly that, strictly that,” she recalled. “Everybody was my boss. Everybody ordered me around.”

Along the way, she learned about the process of publishing a newspaper and the extent of the Courier’s reach. “The owners of the publication were black and rich,” she said.[19] Lawyer Robert Lee Vann initially lacked the funds to invest in the Courier with Harleston and his partners. Vann later earned shares as an incorporating attorney after recruiting five investors and eventually becoming editor then controlling owner until his death.[20] “I was pleased that they had a little respect for what I was contributing. I settled down after a while, and Pittsburgh wasn’t so bad after all.”

Craving Harder News

Cunningham grew increasingly restless in Pittsburgh and craved more assignments covering hard news.[21] She began appealing to the top editor, William G. Nunn, considered a talented newsman and originator of the Courier’s tagline, “America’s Best Weekly,” according to Pride and Wilson. “Nunn had a keen sense of news and a knack for making up eye-catching pages. He also knew sports.”[22]

“I asked him, ‘Do I have to cover these card parties the rest of my life? Why can’t I do different kinds of stories? This is kind of monotonous, and it’s not challenging to me. And anybody can write these stories.’ God, I must have been a pain in the neck and arrogant. I said, ‘I want to do some serious stories.’ He said, ‘Like what?’ I said, ‘Like the lynchings down south, like the discrimination.’ And I ticked off all the ugly, terrible things that I could think of and told him that’s what I wanted to cover—the real world. He said, ‘OK.’ He didn’t ask me a lot of questions. He didn’t say, ‘No you can’t do this.’ He did not say, ‘No that’s not women’s stuff.’”

“I think he thought, ‘Maybe this will straighten this girl out, being in the enemy camp, and she’ll be happy to cover a fashion show.’ No way! I was so excited with the ugliness of it and the plight of black people down there,” she said. “So when they told me, ‘You want to come back?’ I said, ‘No! Not yet. Not yet. Not yet.”

“For the rest of my newspaper career, I was on the road,” she added. “I was covering hard stuff and loving it and enjoying it and getting awards for it and getting high praise.”[23]

During the late forties, Cunningham wrote a series of stories related to the lynching of Isaiah Nixon, a farmer who was shot by two white men after he ignored warnings and voted in Montgomery County, Georgia.[24] The assailants, who were brothers, were later acquitted. Cunningham’s articles sparked a drive to help build and furnish a home for Nixon’s family who fled to Jacksonville, Fla., after his death. Paul R. Williams, the first black member inducted in the American Institute of Architects, designed the house. [25]

Cunningham also covered the Florida case of the Groveland Three, in which a trio of black men were convicted of raping a 17-year-old girl in 1949 and sentenced to death. A “deputized posse” killed a fourth man, she wrote. “For four days, white men raged through the Groveland area, terrorizing Negroes there and burning down their homes,” according to Cunningham’s account. The National Guard was called in, and the U.S. Supreme Court later reversed two of the convictions in 1951. The third case hadn’t yet been appealed, pending the outcome of the other two, which had the assistance of Thurgood Marshall, the late Supreme Court justice and then NAACP special counsel. However, Sheriff Willis McCall of Lake County, Florida, shot the pair, killing one, as the men were being transported for the retrial. “McCall said they were ‘trying to escape,’ although the men were handcuffed to each other,” Cunningham wrote. In her lead, under a Eustis, Fla., dateline, she began: “Colored men who are accused of raping white women don’t have a chance in this part of the world.”[26]

Paula Giddings, who was featured along with Cunningham in Stanley Nelson’s acclaimed PBS documentary on the black press, Soldiers Without Swords, said she was not surprised that Cunningham covered lynchings. Cunningham was continuing a tradition begun by Ida B. Wells, noted Giddings, author of IDA: A Sword Among Lions.

“Ida B. Wells helped to make the lynching issue relevant to women,” Giddings said. “Wells’ anti-lynching campaign was one of the major catalysts for the formation of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896—the first national black women’s organization. In the 1920s, a number of black women, field workers for the NAACP, were sent to organize chapters in the South where it was most dangerous to do so. In addition, there were organizing efforts like the Anti-Lynching Crusaders, led by Mary Talbert, a former president of the NACW and winner of the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal, which mobilized women throughout the country to lobby for the passage of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill in 1922.”

Wells’ crusades against lynching weren’t top of mind when Cunningham pushed to cover the murders of black men in the South, but she is happy to have walked in her journalistic footsteps. “I don’t know if I was influenced by her,” Cunningham said. “I was definitely aware of her.” What is clear, she added, is that “I wanted to be in her world—the world of newspapering.”[27]

Giddings emphasized the courage of women like Cunningham and Wells, who dared to go in the place of men who were more likely, but not exclusively, to be lynched. “Women were also faced with danger,” Giddings explained. “One of the points Ida Wells always made was that women were also lynched. They also faced other perils—and this was also true through the civil rights period and beyond.”[28] Indeed, Wells stayed away from the office of her paper, the Memphis Free Speech, after some contents were destroyed because of death threats and the risk of placing black men willing to defend her in harm’s way.[29] Similarly, Charlotta Bass, publisher and editor of the California Eagle, was threatened, accused of being a Communist, and monitored by the FBI partly as a result of her crusades against the Ku Klux Klan, police brutality, housing covenants against black citizens, and other injustices.[30]

Cunningham routinely risked injury, sexual abuse, incarceration, and death as she traveled through the South. She credited fellow reporters with helping to keep her out of harm’s way.[31] Her scariest moment came in November 1961 when she decided to cross the line and become part of the story. Percy Sutton, former Manhattan borough president, lawyer, and founder of Inner City Broadcasting, said it was shameful that a disproportionate number of students were being arrested and becoming martyrs for the movement. Cunningham said that Sutton suggested that “why don’t we, as grown-up people, go and do these sit-ins?” Sutton wasn’t thinking of Cunningham as part of the “we,” which included three other NAACP officials.

“I had asked could I go along,” she recalled. “He said it might be dangerous, but I went anyway. Nobody could stop me.”[32]

The group headed south toward U.S. Route 40 near Baltimore and eventually the American Council on Human Rights conference in Washington. Around 9:30 p.m., they pulled into the Double T Diner in Rosedale, Md., where their arrival had been expected since 7 p.m. “Everything went as they anticipated,” Cunningham said. The owner, wait staff, and customers were irate. The owner called Sutton a “wheel” and refused each of his three requests for coffee. A van took the five men to the Fullerton County Jail while Cunningham waited and waited for a matron to escort her as required by law. A crowd gathered outside making obscene gestures, while a group of teenagers came in the diner. [33]

“They left me alone in that diner alone with those animals,” Cunningham said. “I was sitting there with these ugly men shouting the ugliest kinds of things they could shout at anyone. There were five or six men behind the counter in the diner shouting at me and calling me bitch and whore and every other thing and hinting about rape.”

“I just knew that I was going to get raped,” she continued. “The most horrible experience in my life was the anticipation. I don’t know how long it took for the woman officer to get there. It seemed like years. It might have been five minutes; it might have been a half-hour. I just wondered how I could fight back or if I could fight back, if they decided they were going to rape me.”[34]

Cunningham gave a firsthand account of the experience under a Baltimore dateline in a Nov. 4, 1961, article titled “Courier Woman Columnist Among Route 40 Arrests.” The overline read, “Evelyn Cunningham Describes Horrible Ordeal.” In the lead paragraph of article, she wrote:

“Getting arrested—even for freedom—is not quite like joining the NAACP or walking in a picket line. It is a crushing experience that gives you the fullest appreciation of the young freedom riders and makes it painfully clear that black people in American have a long, long way to go.”

“At the police station were more crowds, confusion, and picture taking,” Cunningham continued. “Bail was set at $103 each.”

“When they fingerprinted me, I think I died a little,” she recounted in her closing paragraph. “From here on out, dying a little will be easy.”[35]

Cunningham was also in the vicinity when a bomb was tossed onto the porch of King’s house in Montgomery, Ala., on Jan. 30, 1956. King’s wife, Coretta, and infant daughter, Yolanda, were inside with one of his congregants from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. No one was injured.[36] “Hell was breaking loose down south,” Cunningham recalled. “I’m in one of those sad little hotels in Montgomery, when I heard a bomb. So I dashed over to Dr. King’s house and sure enough, the front of the house was demolished. You have no idea of the impact of standing and watching this young man plead with these hundreds of people who were standing in front of his house with Coke bottles and pipes, getting ready to go into town and beat up somebody, to watch him tell them to be calm, be calm; that was not the way.”[37]

King was “a wonderful man,” she said. “I had such a profound respect for who he was and what he was doing and how he was doing it.” She was eager to cover the young minister. “The first time I met him, we had a nice conversation,” she said. “I wasn’t building a story. I just wanted to get to know him, and I wanted him to get to know me, because I was going to be around.”

As they became acquainted, King would tease her and note that she wasn’t truly nonviolent. “I said, “What do you mean?” King responded: “I’m listening to you! I’m listening to your anger. I’m listening to how you want to shoot up and kill the bad guys.” Still, they maintained a mutual respect, she said, and he opened doors to help her meet other sources. “When he had to introduce me to somebody, he would always say, ‘This is Sister Cunningham, and she’s from the Pittsburgh Courier, but she’s a New Yorker and she is not nonviolent.”

Evelyn Cunningham's  articles included a 1956 series called “Life Story of the Rev. M.L. King Jr.: Why and How This Young Pastor Became Leader of Bus Boycott.”

Evelyn Cunningham’s articles included a 1956 series called “Life Story of the Rev. M.L. King Jr.: Why and How This Young Pastor Became Leader of Bus Boycott.”

Over the years, Cunningham traced King’s trajectory from his ordination in February 1948, when he was appointed assistant pastor and later co-pastor under his father at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, to his rise as a world leader and symbol of nonviolence. Her articles included a 1956 series called “Life Story of the Rev. M.L. King Jr.: Why and How This Young Pastor Became Leader of Bus Boycott.” She opened with a mouthful in the final installment on April 21, 1956:

“By the time young Martin Luther King had completed his dissertation for the Ph.D. degree of Boston University on “A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tullich and Henry Nelson Wieman,” he had a firm set of convictions.

“He was well-read in Kent, Hegel and the concepts of struggle as a law of growth. He believes: All men are basically good. Ultimately good will triumph over the evil in the nature. Segregation in all its aspects is evil. Ultimately it must be swept away.”

Two paragraphs later, she noted:

“There is some difference of opinion as to when exactly Dr. King became the accepted leader of the bus protest. Some feel it was a gradual thing; others hold that it came suddenly. Whatever, both he and the Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy, 29-year-old pastor of First Baptist Church, held the reigns of leadership at the beginning.”

However, she pointed out that while he had been pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church since the fall of 1954, he was missing in action on Dec. 1, 1955, for an evening meeting of the Interdenominational Ministers Alliance on the day of Rosa Parks’ arrest for refusing to give up her seat on a bus. “Practically ever Negro minister of Montgomery, except the Rev. Mr. King, was there,” Cunningham wrote.[38]

In addition to writing about leaders at the top, Cunningham informed readers of the everyday trials and tribulations of everyday people. Related articles on the bus boycott included one called “What’s Wrong With Montgomery Buses? ‘Tired of Being Called Apes’” on March 31, 1956. The article listed complaints of “Negro passengers” from 30 men and women who testified at King’s trial related to the boycott, such as:

  • “They didn’t like standing up over empty ‘white seats.’”
  • “They didn’t like having to go to the front door of the bus to deposit their dimes, then going out again to the read door to re-enter.”
  • “They didn’t like how the buses often took off while they were going to the back door, taking their dimes away with them.”
  • “They didn’t like the way some drivers stared the bus before a Negro passenger could get both fee on the ground.”
  • “Most of all, they didn’t like the way many bus drivers talked to them. … ‘Get back, you ugly black apes.’”[39]

Cunningham also penned a popular column called “The Women,” which gave her the freedom to write about any topic. She paid her own way to Florida in 1946 to write a column about Jackie Robinson integrating baseball with the Montreal Royals, the farm team for the Brooklyn Dodgers, a year before his major league debut. Not all of her writing was on such serious topics as racism, racketeering, kidnapping, politics, international issues or sports. In her column, she displayed more of her natural wit and often pushed the envelope to explore taboo or even seemingly trivial topics. Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, for one, encouraged Cunningham to inject more humor in her writing and singled her out as a humorist in “Let’s Laugh a Little,” the forward to the sixth volume of The Collected Works of Langston Hughes: The Later Simple Stories, based on his recurring character Jesse B. Semple. “Among writers of humor, there is the inimitable Zora Neale Hurston, who is one of the most amusing and aggravating female scribes living,” Hughes wrote. “There is Evelyn Cunningham, Nat Williams and Ted Poston, also George S. Schuyler whose wry satire carries a punch as well as a laugh.” Hughes also professed his love for papers targeting his people:

“My favorite reading is the Negro press. I know it should be the Iliad, the Odyssey, Shakespeare, or Tolstoy, but it isn’t. It is the Negro press. Every week that the Lord sends, if possible, in Harlem, I buy the Courier, the Afro, Jet, the Amsterdam News, and, of course, the Defender, for which I write, so I can read myself.”

Still, he pressed the papers to lighten up. “The race problem in America is serious business, I admit. But must it always be written about seriously?” Hughes asked. “If Negroes took all the white world’s daily boorishness to heart and wept over it as profoundly as our serious writers do, we would have been dead long ago.” [40]

So interspersed with articles on Haitian politics, Autherine Lucy’s attempts to integrate the University of Alabama, and the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama, Cunningham’s body of work also includes pieces that weigh the sex appeal of public figures as well as their leadership abilities or that warn women against shouting “race stuff” when a black athlete “plain strikes out.” With tongue firmly in cheek, Cunningham took a light-hearted look at “playing the dozens,” a mink coat scandal, and falsies. Headlines on “The Women” have ranged from “How to Look Like You Ain’t Being Stood Up” to “We’re Talking About (Shhhh) Bloomers!”

“They told me I could write about anything I wanted, and so I did,” Cunningham said. “Nothing was sacred. They let me just run amok and make fun of black people sometimes and make fun of myself. I talked about black society. I talked about older women who were linked younger men.”

“I got lots of mail,” she added. “I know I broke a lot of rules. I know I wrote about untouchable subjects.”

Conclusion: Memories & Milestones

“Being a woman alone does not give one a unique perspective,” Paula Giddings said. “But I do think that women have a great potential to do so because they often have a kind of peripheral vision that includes the personal and the political and how the two are related to one another.”

“Ida Wells provided one of the first models of a woman covering political news,” Giddings added. “She was sometimes criticized for it, because political news was supposed to be the task of men; and women were expected to cover personal, social, or community issues. Ida did both, and in the end was hailed as one of the few journalists who was read in equal measure by men and women. Women became journalists in great numbers starting in the 1890s.”[41] A number of women were journalists during Cunningham’s time, but Ofield Dukes said that only two others stood out in terms of Civil Rights coverage: the Chicago Defender’s Ethel Payne along with Dorothy Gilliam, who worked for the Tri-State Defender in North Carolina and later the Washington Post.[42]

C. Gerald Fraser, who worked at the competing Amsterdam News and later the New York Daily News and the New York Times, said that Cunningham covered a wider array of news than most women of any race as well as men in many cases. “She was way ahead of all the other black reporters,” Fraser said. “She probably covered New York City and especially Harlem on a broader basis than white reporters,” Fraser said. “That was one of the advantages of working in the black press. You could do whatever you wanted to do in terms of coverage.”

“She was smart. She was very good at what she did,” he added. “She knew everybody, but everybody in Harlem knew her—the entertainers, the politicians, the major organizers.” [43]

The ability to write about whatever she wanted appealed to Cunningham. She was so proud of the black press that she never had any desire to work for mainstream media—especially if she had to be restrained because of her race or gender. “My goal was to cover anything; it was that simple, that uncomplicated,” Cunningham explained. “Whenever I heard someone say, women can’t do this or women can’t do that, it really drove me up a wall. It really made me so angry. I said, ‘I wonder if I put on a man’s suit, would they look at me differently?’”

Cunningham inherited the unyielding backbone of her journalist-activist grandmother, who reportedly marched past guards into the office of North Carolina’s governor demanding equal pay for black teachers. She also heard the voice of her parents, who repeatedly told her: “You can be anything you want to be, Baby. You can do anything you want to do. Nothing can stop you.” All of this was reinforced by comments from friends and sources like Thurgood Marshall, who would question why a man would receive an assignment over her and ask, “Why didn’t you write that article?” Cunningham fondly recalled Marshall as one of the first “feminists” she encountered.  She claimed that the late Supreme Court justice would frequently rail against “girl stories” and “boy stories,” questioning the existence of “boy pens” and “boy typewriters.”[44]

In a 2000 article on “Women in the Black Press” for the Amsterdam News, Cunningham wrote about how she broke through gender and racial barriers in her reporting. “I covered hard news in 48 U.S. cities and spent three months living in a trailer,” she said. “There were stories from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Jamaica, Nassau, Bermuda, and Cuba. Truly, been there, done that.”[45]

She spent the last five years of her journalism career doing double duty as a Courier reporter and WLIB-AM host during her lunch hour. She thought her radio days would end as quickly as they started when she invited Malcolm X as a guest on her first program. Her supervisor at the station nearly had a stroke, Cunningham said. “He thought the Muslims were going to come in and burn the building down. A lot of people were anti-him,” she said of Malcolm X. As it turned out, the show was well-received and a success.

Cunningham said that she wrote about Malcolm X a great deal. “His office was in walking distance from the Courier office, so we saw each other often. I knew Betty, his wife. I watched the children grow up. He used to call me Sister Cunningham.”

“I had great respect for him,” she said. “I couldn’t buy his whole philosophy. He tried hard to sell it to me, but I’d listen all the time.” Despite their mutual respect, their ties became strained after he reneged on a promise to help arrange a profile of his wife, Betty. “He said sure, sure, sure; it won’t be a problem at all,” Cunningham recalled. “Two days after my last talk with Malcolm, there was a story about Betty on the front page of the Herald Tribune. I was so angry that I didn’t know what to do. I was mad as hell. He could have told me.”[46]

One of her last interviews with Nelson Rockefeller resulted in a job offer to work with the New York governor and baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson. “That was a pretty big deal then,” Fraser said.[47] Ofield Dukes, who also worked in government, agreed. “In the sixties, that was a thing of prestige,” Dukes said. “At the time, moderate Republicans were in, and Rockefeller was the man. A Rockefeller Republican was very influential.”[48]

Cunningham maintained that influence into her nineties and still considered herself a “connector”—and so did many New Yorkers. The “connector” was also hailed as the first lady of Harlem and was frequently captured in the society lens of New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham. Over the years, she served at the helm of a women’s unit established by Rockefeller, worked on a range of commissions, sat on several boards, helped to launch a women’s magazine called Elan, and founded the Coalition of 100 Black Women. Cunningham was to the Coalition of 100 Black Women as the iconic Dorothy I. Heights was to the National Council of Negro Women.

“The government thing was fabulous for me,” Cunningham said, but the board seats became too numerous. “One day I looked up and I was on 12 boards, and that’s when I started saying, ‘this is ridiculous.’” Her five-year stint on the board of the Apollo Theatre Foundation was one of her most contentious appointments. The then 83-year-old resigned in late January 1999 after she locked horns with U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., when she supported the state attorney general’s effort to remove the board as part of an investigation of financial irregularities. The investigation involved dealings with Inner City Broadcasting, producer of “It’s Showtime at the Apollo.” The incident put her at odds not only with Rangel, the board chairman, but also with Percy Sutton, Inner City founder and organizer of the sit-in at the Maryland diner in November 1961. But Cunningham didn’t care. In both her pre- and post-journalistic lives, she was consistent in her commitment to calling a spade, a spade.[49]

All in all, Cunningham was thrilled to have served as a mentor and inspiration for legions of men and women in journalism, government, philanthropy, and civic affairs. She was overjoyed to have been honored with a 2008 legacy award from the National Association of Black Journalists. She was honored to have been a witness to history, helping to diversify coverage for both the black and mainstream press.

Despite her accomplishments, Cunningham described her career as ordinary. When pressed about her legacy, she responded: “I would like to be remembered as a person who was rich in friends. I have had a lifetime full of friends—good people, wonderful people, famous people, poor people, productive people. Just people. Wonderful, wonderful people. That’s why journalism was so easy for me. I loved it so much!”[50] That’s exactly how she was remembered by former New York Mayors Michael Bloomberg, who called her one of the city’s treasured assets, David Dinkins, who described her as a trailblazer, during her capacity memorial service after her death at the age of 94 on April 28, 2010.

Cunningham said her career overflowed with memorable experiences. “I was there, and I met just about everybody.” Besides King, Marshall, Castro, and Malcolm X, these figures include politician Adam Clayton Powell Jr., tennis and golf pioneer Althea Gibson, entertainer Sammy Davis Jr., and activist Dorothy I. Height, who died a few days earlier than Cunningham.

“I remember so many great, high-achieving stories–things that were happening for the first time. I was so aware that I’m so lucky so fortunate to see something happen, to see Althea Gibson. I thank God for the opportunity to be on the outskirts of something that was so vital.”

She was touched by the reaction of Willie Mays’ family in Birmingham. Witnessing Jackie Robinson integrate baseball brought tears to her eyes. “I cried so much that day.” After covering the March on Washington in 1963, “I thought, ‘Oh my God, we’re almost there.’ God, was I wrong.” However, she believed the United States came much closer to being there after the election of its first black president and “greatest thing to hit our country,” Barack Obama, who visited her apartment while campaigning.

“Sometimes I’m so frustrated that young people don’t know so many people. That hurts me deeply. They don’t know that the world champion of tennis was a black woman. Althea Gibson is not a household name. That’s horrible.”

Cunningham was also disappointed about what she described as a decline in the depth and humor of the black press. “I’m so disappointed because of what’s not there. Why didn’t they take a stand on this or that? Some stories require a lot of reporters working on different angles.” She missed the old Pittsburgh Courier. “It was the major black paper, and there’s been nothing like it since.” The selection committee for the prestigious George Polk Award agreed when it honored the paper and made presentations to Cunningham and four other survivors.

“I was so shocked and pleased that I didn’t know what to do,” she said of the recognition. “It ain’t the Pulitzer, but it felt like the Pulitzer!” [51]

 



[1] Washburn, Patrick S. (2006). The African-American Newspaper: Voice of Freedom. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, p. 7.

[2] Cunningham, Evelyn, (Personal communication, New York City, December 1, 2006)

[3] Socialist Worker retrieved Feb. 5, 2008, at http://www.socialistworker.org/2003-1/453/453_08_Birmingham.shtml

[4] Cunningham, 2006.

[5] The Nobel Foundation retrieved April 1, 2008, at http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1964/king-acceptance.html

[6] National Visionary Leadership Project Oral History Archives retrieved September 20, 2008, at http://www.visionaryproject.org/cunninghamevelyn/

[7] Dukes, Ofield, (Personal communication, Washington, D.C., April 1, 2008)

[8] The New Pittsburgh Courier retrieved March 31, 2008, at http://www.newpittsburghcourieronline.com/articlelive/pages/About-Us

[9] Dukes 2008.

[10] Pride, Armistead S. & Wilson II, Clint C. (1997). A History of the Black Press. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, p. 152.

[11] Wolseley, Roland E. (1971). The Black Press, U.S.A. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, p. 104.

[12] Pride & Wilson, p. 13.

[13] Wolseley, p. 9.

[14] Wolseley, p. 77.

[15] Washburn, p. 8.

[16] Wolseley, p. 257.

[17] Bradley, Patricia (2005). Women and the Press: The Struggle for Equality. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press/Medill School of Journalism, p. 102.

[18] Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library (2000). The Black New Yorkers: The Schomburg Illustrated Chronology. New York: John Wiley & Sons, p. 258.

[19] Cunningham, 2006.

[20] Pride & Wilson, p. 138.

[21] Cunningham, 2006.

[22] Pride & Wilson, p. 138.

[23] Cunningham, 2006.

[24] Cunningham, Evelyn, “Even With Georgia Memories Haunting Them, Nixons Are Warm-Hearted, Human Despite Tragedy” (Last in a Series), The Pittsburgh Courier, Jan. 15, 1949, p. 5.

[25] Cunningham, Evelyn, “Fund to Furnish Nixon Home Opens at $76.90,” The Pittsburgh Courier, Sept. 17, 1949, p. 1.

[26] Cunningham, Evelyn, “Florida ‘Lynching’ Angers World: Clear Sheriff In Slaying; U.S. Probing,” The Pittsburgh Courier, Nov. 17, 1951, p. 1.

[27] Cunningham, 2008.

[28] Giddings, Paula. (Personal communication, Northampton, Mass., March 31, 2008).

[29] Giddings, Paula (2008). IDA: A Sword Among Lions. New York: HarperCollins, p. 211-214.

[30] Streitmatter, Rodger (1994). Raising Her Voice: African-American Women Journalists Who Changed History, “Charlotta A. Bass: Radical Precursor of the Black Power Movement.” Lexington: University Press of Kentucky,  p. 95-96, 98-99.

[31] Cunningham, 2008.

[32] Cunningham, 2006.

[33] Cunningham, Evelyn. “Evelyn Cunningham Describes Horrible Ordeal: Courier Woman Columnist Among Route 40 Arrests,” The Pittsburgh Courier, Nov. 4, 1961, p. A5.

[34] Cunningham, 2006.

[35] Cunningham, “Courier Woman Columnist Among Route 40 Arrests.”

[36] King Center timeline retrieved, Sept. 20, 2008, at http://www.thekingcenter.org/mlk/chronology.html

 

[37] Nelson, Stanley (1998), The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords, Evelyn Cunningham Transcript, Los Angeles: California  Newsreel.

[38] Cunningham, Evelyn. “Life Story of the Rev. M.L. King Jr.: Why and How This Young Pastor Became Leader of Bus Boycott,” The Pittsburgh Courier, April 21, 1956, p. A6.

[39] Cunningham, Evelyn. “What’s Wrong With Montgomery Buses? ‘Tired of Being Called Apes,’” The Pittsburgh Courier, March 31, 1956, p. 22.

[40] Hughes, Langston and Sullivan Harper, Donna. (2002). The Collected Works of Langston Hughes: The Later Simple Stories, Volume 6. University of Missouri Press, p. 19-21.

[41] Giddings, 2008.

[42] Dukes, 2008.

[43] Fraser, C. Gerald. (Personal communication, New York City, Feb. 14, 2008).

[44] Cunningham, 2008.

[45] Cunningham, Evelyn, “Women in the Black Press,” New York Amsterdam News, Dec. 7, 2000.  p. AS5

[46] Cunningham, 2006.

[47] Fraser, 2008.

[48] Dukes, 2008.

[49] Grant, Peter, “Rangel Foe Quits Apollo Board Seat,” New York Daily News, Jan. 29, 1999. Retrieved Sept. 20, 2008, at http://www.nydailynews.com/archives/news/1999/01/29/1999-01-29_rangel_foe_quits_apollo_boar.html

[50] Cunningham, 2008.

[51] Cunningham, 2008.

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