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Two American pioneers: Evelyn Cunningham and Dr. Dorothy Height

As a host of dignitaries laid civil rights icon Dr. Dorothy Height to rest at a service at the National Cathedral, I was mourning the loss of Evelyn Cunningham. She was not as famous as Dr. Height. But this nation is a better place because both women refused to allow limits to be placed on their potential -- and they did all they could to ensure that a limitless future would be within reach of all who followed them.

Like Dr. Height, Cunningham was a trailblazer. While Dr. Height was part of the machinery that pushed the Civil Rights movement to prominence, Cunningham covered it as a journalist and editor at the Pittsburgh Courier. One of her badge-of-honor stories was how she walked right up to Bull Connor and asked him for an interview. He walked off, but not before spitting an ugly epithet. Cunningham worked for Gov. Nelson Rockefeller (R-N.Y.) and then went with him to Washington when he became vice president under Gerald Ford.

My former colleagues on the New York Daily News editorial board and I met Cunningham on a tour of Harlem's famed Apollo Theater in 1998. For me and her it was love at first sight. She was a vivacious 82-year-old former journalist in high-heeled black boots, and I was a 30-year-old kid trying to understand how a national landmark such as the Apollo could be in such disrepair, especially with Rep. Charlie Rangel (D) as the chairman of the theater's board. Several times a day, every day, for more than a year, Cunningham and I would talk about Rangel's latest machinations on the Apollo board. Always a journalist, she would come to the phone with detailed notes. The Pulitzer we won for editorial writing the following year could not have happened without Cunningham's help and guidance. That's why she was in the newsroom with us that wonderful April afternoon.

Cunningham sat on numerous boards in Harlem and citywide. And she was a fixture of the New York social circuit. She was a favorite subject of Bill Cunningham's Sunday New York Times Style Section society photos. Cunningham loved a party and loved the people who went to them. She greeted everyone with the look of surprise and joy one sees when little kids open presents, or with an exquisitely drawn out "Hi, darlin!" Cunningham once confided in me that she loved taking the free bus to Ikea across from Newark airport because she liked to see all the young families shop for their new lives together. Then, as now, my eyes welled up with tears upon hearing her share something so hopeful from someone who had seen so much. I cannot thank her enough for sharing her remarkable life with me.

Rest in peace, Evelyn.

By jonathan capehart  | April 29, 2010; 5:28 PM ET
Categories:  Capehart  | Tags:  jonathan capehart  
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What a lovely tribute. I didn't know her, but you make me wish I had. Let me add my RIP to yours...

Posted by: Victoria27 | April 30, 2010 12:37 PM | Report abuse

I now have this image of her discomforting Bull Connor which makes me smile. I am glad to hear of Ms. Cunningham may she rest in peace.

Posted by: almorganiv | April 30, 2010 6:21 PM | Report abuse

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