Evelyn Cunningham (270441)

You knew from her regal bearing and the first words out of her mouth that Evelyn Cunningham was not a woman to suffer fools kindly, and that you had better state your purpose and not waste her time. She was a journalist of precision and seriousness and during her long and productive career earned international respect and a formidable legacy.

Cunningham, who passed at 94 in 2011, was as ubiquitous as she was thorough in her accounts, not mincing her words and always determined to speak truth to power. Sitting with her once in her Harlem apartment was like being granted an opportunity to interview a queen, but she had a way of putting you at ease and allowing you to get on with the conversation because her agenda, even in the twilight of years, was packed with appointments.

Both in demeanor and aspect, Evelyn was the grande dame of African-American journalism, and nothing confirms that more than the notables she covered and the incidents and historic moments that were part of her astonishing resume.

She was born Evelyn Elizabeth Long Jan. 25, 1916, in Elizabeth City, N.C. As a child, an obituary in this paper recalled, 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 Pittsburgh 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 a 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.”

A recent book by Mark Whitaker, “Smoketown: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance,” more than captures the essence of her as an intrepid reporter for the Courier, particularly during the civil rights era. At first she was not that excited about Pittsburgh, finding the town smoky, smelling, dark and sleepy, according to Whitaker. “But with her elegant looks and gift for gab, Evelyn quickly turned heads and made friends,” he wrote. “Before long she was organizing office parties and playing in the weekly office poker game, the only woman invited to the table.”

The adverse effects of Pittsburgh were perhaps understandable for a woman nurtured by the lively, exuberant life in Harlem where she arrived as a child. Always with a nose for the city’s happenings, Cunningham roamed the streets and was actively involved in school activities, including her days at Hunter College High School.

By this time, she was already working for the Courier from the paper’s Harlem office. Her stories soon caught the eye of the editor, and she was given additional assignments beyond the rewrites from the nation’s dailies. When the Civil Rights Movement, led by Dr. King, began to gather headlines, Cunningham was among the first into the fray. 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,” she said. “He was not hurt. His wife was not hurt.”

Cunningham continued, “There was only one child at that moment, 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.”

No, 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.”

Her appearance was often requested on local and national television shows for her firsthand accounts of the turmoil that raged across the country. Readers of her column in the Courier and listeners to her show on WLIB were engrossed by her reports, especially one in which she traveled to Maryland in 1961 with Percy Sutton where a protest was underway against a restaurant that discriminated against Black patrons. The group was arrested, found guilty of trespassing and fined $101.

Cunningham’s coverage of the Civil Rights Movement came after her repeated badgering of the editor to do something more than the local coverage of garden parties and card games. That was when she was dispatched to the South and threw herself boldly into the tumult—the lynching and chronicling the heroism of the freedom fighters. Her marriage to Gerald Cunningham ended in divorce and she vowed then to devote her life to journalism, keeping a family life and children out of the future.

In the late 1960s, she set aside journalism to work as a special assistant to Jackie Robinson, who was a political consultant to Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. She accompanied the governor to several Caribbean countries, where she compiled a report on racial and gender problems. When the New York Coalition of One Hundred Black Women was formed in 1970, Cunningham was among the charter members. But it would be an act of futility to try to list all the organizations and institutions that benefited from her presence and sagely advice.

Cunningham was one of five former reporters of the Courier to receive the prestigious George Polk Award in 1998 on behalf of the paper, founded by Robert Vann in 1910. That same year, the Century Club honored her with the Women of the Century Award, which is among a number of coveted awards adorning her walls in Harlem. One of the last times she was seen in public was at the Apollo Theater when Barack Obama appeared there during his campaign. “This is quite incredible,” she said of Obama’s chances. “I never thought I’d live to see such a possibility.”

Of course, she shouldn’t have been too surprised because such an eventuality was in part an outgrowth of her pioneering journalism, her indomitable will and her determination to get the stories and get them back to the people without losing any of that compelling truth that marked her passages.