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50 Years/50 Collections: The Evelyn Cunningham papers

Cunningham on phone in March on Washington press tent, 1963.

Evelyn Cunningham embodied many labels in her lifetime: journalist, columnist, editor, feminist, and civil rights activist. These roles are heavily reflected in her papers that she donated to the Amistad Research Center in 2003. The Center received an addendum to Cunningham’s papers in 2011. These materials were donated by the niece she raised, Gigi Freeman.

Evelyn Cunningham was born on January 25, 1916 in Elizabeth City, North Carolina to Mary and Clyde Long. Her mother was a dressmaker and her father was a taxicab driver. At age four, her family moved to Harlem to pursue better educational, job, and living opportunities. She was educated in New York City public schools and graduated from Hunter College High School in 1934. She attended Long Island University, earning her Bachelor of Science degree in 1939. She continued her schooling at Columbia University where she studied journalism for one semester.

Cunningham moved from New York to Pittsburgh to start her career with the Pittsburgh Courier in 1940. In an undated letter to her acquaintance Anne, she described her beginnings at the Courier, the excitement she experienced being part of its staff, and some of her insecurities. She wrote:

We work in a sort of square. That’s the way our desks are arranged, and I mean we work! Of course I don’t know what I’m doing, but with my desk all cluttered up and the phone ringing and the teletype ticking and the sound of the press rolling, and the copy boys running around and someone screaming an insult across the floor to someone else, it’s wonderful! But I still don’t know what I’m doing. Al Dunmore whose place I’m taking is still around showing me the business and God knows what I’ll do when he leaves on Wednesday.

Cunningham’s anxieties were certainly misplaced because within a year she was covering the Civil Rights Movement and providing commentary on some of the most historic events of the era. She reported on the Groveland, Florida murders, the South Carolina lynching of Isaiah Nixon, the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, and the Birmingham, Alabama Autherine Lucy school desegregation case. During her time in Montgomery, Cunningham wrote a three-part series on the life and family of Martin Luther King, Jr., based on her meetings and interviews with him and his family.

Page from notebook reporting on Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1956.

She was the first African American woman to report on Eisenhower's presidential campaign and traveled extensively to cover stories dealing with race relations and women's issues in Nevada, California, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Jamaica, and Cuba. After five years with the Pittsburgh Courier, she attained the position of editor of the New York, Philadelphia, and St. Louis editions (1945-1950), became a feature writer and columnist (1950-1955), and the city editor for the New York edition (1955-1962). Cunningham's column, “The Woman” chronicled African American social life in Harlem.

Following her work at the Pittsburg Courier, Cunningham hosted a daily radio show, At Home with Evelyn Cunningham, on New York’s WLIB until 1966. In addition to this show, Cunningham spent time as a communications consultant (1961-1966) to various organizations including the Rockefeller Center, Inc., Black Odyssey Magazine, American Women for Economic Development, Philip Morris, USA, the New York Department of Civil Service, and the Jackie Robinson Foundation. Cunningham served as special assistant to Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who had been impressed with her when she interviewed him as a candidate. She continued to advise him when he became President Gerald R. Ford’s vice president.

Cunningham may have also had literary ambitions beyond her work in journalism. Among her papers is an undated short story titled, The Mulatto. In the story, George, a biracial slave, avenges the brutal death of his wife Zelie. In one scene of the story George confronts his Master Alfred stating: “Master isn’t it horrible to die when you are happy, to lie down in a [grave] just when you are about to realize your dearest dreams…oh, isn’t it horrible?” The story addressed themes of power, vengeance, mercy and morality—issues Cunningham would have been familiar with covering a movement that laid bare all the aforementioned. Cunningham died in 2010, at the of age 94, in Harlem.

The finding aid for the Evelyn Cunningham papers are located here.

Disclaimer: Images from the Evelyn Cunningham papers. Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.

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