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Grande dame of Black journalism, Evelyn Cunningham, passes at 94

Herb Boyd | 4/12/2011, 5:31 p.m.

Evelyn Cunningham, the grande dame of African-American journalism, died Wednesday morning. She was 94.

In her long and productive career, Cunningham was ubiquitous, covering nearly every major national event from 1940 to 1962, including the Civil Rights Movement, for the Pittsburgh Courier. A serious but personable journalist, her interviews with such notables as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Malcolm X revealed facts about them that were not commonly known.

During an interview on PBS, she recounted one of her moments with Dr. King right after his house in Montgomery had been firebombed in January 1956. "I dashed over to Dr. King's house and, sure enough, the front of the house was demolished. He was not hurt. His wife was not hurt.

"There was only one child at that moment," Cunningham continued, "but you have no idea the impact of standing there watching this young man plead with these hundreds of people...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...that was not the way. It was a no-win situation to take the bottles and the pipes and go start a fight. You could not do it that way."

It was not unusual for Cunningham to be right in the mix of things. As a reporter for the Courier, she was dispatched all over the world and her byline was something Black readers grew accustomed to, knowing she would "tell it like it is" and not be afraid to speak truth to power.

Cunningham was born on January 25, 1916, in Elizabeth City, N.C. As a child, she expressed, perhaps humorously, that she wanted to pick cotton when she grew up. That desire was enough for her parents--a cab driver and dressmaker--to pack their belongings and head for Harlem.

An inveterate reader with endless curiosity, Cunningham excelled in school, graduating from Hunter College High School in 1934. Nine years later, she had her bachelor's degree in social sciences from Long Island University.

Even before acquiring her college degree, she had begun working at the Courier, beginning by clipping stories from the major white publications and rewriting them for Black readers. In her capacity at the Courier for a quarter of century, she functioned as a reporter, columnist and city editor. Because of her fearless coverage of the Civil Rights Movement, she was often referred to as the "Lynching Editor."

Many Harlemites fondly recall when she traveled with the late Percy Sutton and other NAACP members to Rosedale, Md., in 1961, where they staged a protest against a restaurant that discriminated against Black patrons. The group was arrested, found guilty of trespassing and fined $101.

That incident and others, including her coverage of lynchings, were often the source of discussion on her radio show on WLIB in New York, a show she hosted for five years, with opportunities to interview a number of significant figures in politics, arts and entertainment, and the media.