Evelyn Cunningham of the Pittsburgh Courier was a statuesque redhead who stood 6 feet tall in high heels, according to a description in Mark Whitaker’s critically acclaimed 2017 book “Smoketown” that chronicled black Pittsburgh. Cunningham also turned heads in the working-class city because she dressed in the latest New York fashions, accented with her signature pearl necklace.
Cunningham [1916-2011] was a distinguished member of the 1940s-1950s-era Black Press. She lobbied her editors to get out of covering ladies garden parties and cards games and instead become a civil rights correspondent. She covered lawyer Thurgood Marshall’s and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s daring moves down South. For example, she rushed to the scene when King’s house in 1956 was demolished by firebombing domestic terrorists and watched the pastor calm the crowd.
Writer Herb Boyd in a November New York Amsterdam News appreciation of Cunningham, quoted her: “You have no idea the impact of 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.”
Cunningham’s three-part profile of Martin Luther King, wrote Mark Whitaker, scooped the major, so-called “white” daily newspapers, and her enterprise prompted the New York Times to hire her as a stringer while she continued working for the Courier [for a contemporary example, consider April Ryan, longtime White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Network, who recently picked up a second job as CNN political analyst].
Cunningham was chatted up Saturday, March 9 at a joint journalism history conference at New York University in Manhattan. A Duquesne University graduate student presented an academic paper, “More than a Voice for ‘The Women,’” the last two words a salute to the advice column Cunningham wrote in addition to reporting from historical markers of the civil rights movement. Emily Fitzgerald’s research – including study of 54 of Cunningham’s 1955 Courier columns – was work-in-progress for a future biography of the journalist.
That warmed my heart. In the last few years there has been a burst of substantive histories and biographies about the golden 20th century Black Press era. They include “Smoketown,” “The Defender,” a 2016 book about the Chicago newspaper, and a 2015 biography of Ethel Payne, “Eye on the Struggle, First Lady of the Black Press.” There’s room for more scholarship. Consider Cunningham’s platform. The Courier’s peak circulation back in the day was 250,000 weekly and when the pass-along rate was factored in, said Fitzgerald, Cunningham reached 2 million readers.
Another woman Black Press icon – Ida B. Wells-Barnett – was recognized too at this daylong conference of about 50 professors, graduate student and doctoral candidates.
Lori Amber Roessner was among four academic authors at a session and she talked about her 2018 book, “Political Pioneer of the Press: Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Her Transnational Crusade for Social Justice.” Roessner, an associate professor at the University of Tennessee, projected a Victorian-era portrait image of Wells-Barnett [1862-1931] and her two daughters, including 11-year-old Alfreda, standing upright and exuding middle-class respectability.
In 1971, grown-up Alfreda Wells Duster published Wells-Barnett’s autobiography, 40 years after her mother’s death. For many years the National Association of Black Journalists and Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism bestowed an Ida B. Wells award annually to a crusading journalist. Since 2001, a handful of Wells-Barnett biographies were published by authors including Paula Giddings and Walter Dean Myers, and handful more books were reissues of Wells-Barnett’s works, including “The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States,” and “Southern Horror: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.”
Yet, we need more books, said Roessner, because despite the icon’s fearless accomplishments, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, possibly America’s greatest investigative journalist, said the professor, lurks mostly in the footnotes of other historical figure’s books and deserves to be elevated.
With “Political Pioneer of the Press,” said Roessner, she wanted to erect a spiritual monument to Ida B., “because stone monuments can be torn down.”
Dawkins is an associate professor at Morgan State University School of Global Journalism and Communication.