THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
VFA Recognizes Evelyn Cunningham
“I like to consider myself a full-fledged 100% thoroughbred feminist.”
Salute to Pioneer Feminists, May 1994, Sewall Belmont House in Washington, DC,
home of the National Women’s Party
Jacqui Ceballos: Now Evelyn Cunningham. She’s from New York City. I was working in New York City in the early feminist movement. When I was a member of NOW and we were struggling and everyone was yelling at us and ridiculing us, Evelyn Cunningham called us from Governor Rockefeller’s office. She planned all kinds of conference committees and she was just so much with us. She gave us so much inspiration and help and we have great love for Evelyn Cunningham. I’ll let Congressman Rangel, who knows her personally and is the Congressman from New York City, introduce her.
Congressman Rangel: Thank all of you for selecting one of New York’s favorite people to give an award to. I hear a lot of talk about feminists and what we should be doing for our women folk. But I think when we talk about Evelyn Cunningham no matter what circles it really is, we talk about common sense and vision. So that if it were indeed a racial issue when the talents of blacks or Puerto Ricans and others were not really being incorporated in business or in government, she would speak out. Not because it’s just the right thing to do, but that common sense and intellect would mean that we could not achieve the goal that we would want if we don’t allow full participation and the brains and the talents that everyone has.
And so, when she was fighting these fights in the early days in Harlem – black or white – in saying that we cannot afford to achieve the goals of equity and fairness if half of the brainpower who happened to be women are not fully utilized. It made sense in our community. It made sense when our great Governor Rockefeller – I don’t know how he became a Republican – but these things happen – when he selected her. But it did not deter a good Democrat Governor Carey from saying that it doesn’t really make any difference whether she’s Republican or Democrat – whether she’s black or white – as long as she wants to achieve these goals for our country and our great state, then we need Evelyn Cunningham.
And so, no matter where she goes – no matter what the circles are – no matter what the politics are – you will find people saying – do you think we could persuade her to be with us? I close by saying on a very personal note that as a kid, the world’s famous Apollo Theater was just about the most exciting thing that we could go to. Playing hooky and the risk of being caught meant nothing. The second thing that happened was that I had a chance to go to law school to become a desk clerk at the only hotel that we had that was in Harlem for black folks called Hotel Theresa. And then what happened was a guy named Percy Sutton was known to all of us in the city – was able to leave politics, go into business, acquire the theater, put tens of millions of dollars in it and bring it back.
And as a business venture it failed. But we were able to convince the governor and the mayor and the banks that the community could put it together. Evelyn doesn’t know this, but what happened was that Percy asked me whether or not I could swiftly put together a nonprofit organization. He asked this at a luncheon meeting with only five guys who were at the table. I went to them and I said, “Listen: we got an emergency. The bank is going to acquire the property. We’ve got the governor’s support – we’re putting in for a 501C3. Can I use your names? I don’t care how long you stay on, but let me get this started so that the community would not lose this.”
We had our first board meeting. And the first thing, the guys looked at each other and they said something is terribly wrong here. And so we said, “Why don’t we just get out in a release that we’re inviting Evelyn Cunningham to come in and help us fill out the board the way it should be?” And that took the pressure off of us temporarily, because each time she comes she’s looking for more people that have really been able to make the contributions to our country. They are women and minorities and as long as it’s going to be a good fight – and I don’t care what the issue is – I feel so much better when Evelyn Cunningham is on my side. It’s my great pleasure to introduce you.
Evelyn Cunningham: So that’s the way I got on the board? You guys are really going to live to regret that. I’ve got plans for the Apollo. And you better hurry up and get some more women on that board. And when your constituency – the ladies who love you in New York – ask me will I join the Women for Rangel Committee – this Republican is going to say yes, Charlie. It’s not been easy for black women to become really passionate about the women’s movement. In the early days it certainly was far from easy. I think there were two factors that got me intrigued by it. I held the view that they think for me, that these are frustrated women who really don’t know what life is about. They’re mad at their husbands. No – I’ve got too many other things.
At that point, I was working for Governor Nelson Rockefeller. I had a wonderful sweet job as special assistant to Jackie Robinson who had retired from baseball. Working for him was a joy. It was just…a lot of fun. I got to know him – I as a reporter. I’d done many stories on him. And it was just a great government job. Nelson Rockefeller out of nowhere with no pressure created something called the Women’s Unit of the Executive Chamber of the state of New York and said to me – “Evelyn, I’m taking you away from Jackie and putting you with the women.” “NO! With all due respect Governor – sir you cannot do this to me. I’ve got enough problems being black. Now you’re going to give me another set of problems.” He said, “Yes, I guess I am. You will go to the women’s unit.” That’s what governors do.
It didn’t take me long to realize and to really think seriously about the many incidents in my life and my past where I had assumed I was cut off because I was black. Then I began to wonder if I had been cut off because I was a woman. It really created something very new for me. As the women’s movement grew, this became more and more important to me and I shared and I talked with many black women and many of us became involved. Somewhere along the line, Betty Friedan’s first book The Feminine Mystique told me a great deal. “Betty – it really was part of my conversion. Part of reading your book and understanding that a lot of my problems – I share [with] a lot of people.” I like to consider myself a full-fledged 100% thoroughbred feminist.