By E. R. Shipp
You know Lena Horne’s name more than you know Evelyn Cunningham’s, but they are both sophisticated ladies you’d like to have had a good ol’ Southern breakfast…
…with as they regaled with sometimes ribald stories about hard times and rebounding from hard knocks. Oh, did they leave a lot of folks “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” (Lena’s song)!
Lena Horne, 92, Brooklyn’s own, died on Mother’s Day. Evelyn, 94, a native of Elizabeth City, N. C., who made Harlem her home, beat Lena through the Pearly Gates less than two weeks earlier, on April 28. Obviously there to scope the place out and then to interview Lena on deadline before graciously showing her around.
A teenaged Lena performed in Harlem’s Cotton Club, described by Aljean Harmetz of the New York Times as “the famous Harlem nightclub where the customers were white, the barely dressed dancers were light-skinned blacks, Duke Ellington was the star of the show and the proprietors were gangsters.” Hollywood in the 1940s, where she could work but not live without the intervention of influential people like Humphrey Bogart, wanted her to be some exotic woman with no obvious black identity. She did what she had to do, including kick butt, before bolting. And in the 1960s civil rights struggles she, like Harry Belafonte, was up front and center. She was triumphant in a 1981 one-woman show on Broadway, “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music”. She won a Tony Award and a couple of Grammy Awards for that – and the admiration of a younger generation or two.
Halle Berry is the latter day Lena Horne with the benefits of what Lena Horne achieved in a life that made her high yellow features, as they were called back in the day, a blessing as well as a burden. Back in 2002, when she became the first black woman to be awarded the Best Actress Oscar, a very emotional Halle said: “This moment is so much bigger than me. This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It’s for the women that stand beside me: Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox. And it’s for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.”
At age 80 Ms. Horne said: “My identity is very clear to me now. I am a black woman. I’m free. I no longer have to be a ‘credit.’ I don’t have to be a symbol to anybody. I don’t have to be a first to anybody. I don’t have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I’d become. I’m me, and I’m like nobody else.”
So true, too, of Evelyn Cunningham, a star journalist at the Pitttsburgh Courier when it was one of the premier crusading black newspapers that black train workers helped smuggle into the South. She downed whiskey with John Wayne because he was already drinking when she arrived for an interview. She had stories of covering presidents from Harry Truman on. She worked as a special assistant to Nelson Rockefeller when he was New York’s governor and later the Vice President under President Ford.
Wall Street, Time Warner, the civil rights movement, countless college students and my Harlem dining table are the beneficiaries of Evelyn Cunningham. She taught Dick Parsons, now head of Time Warner, how to dress when he thought being “fly” was the thing while interviewing for an internship with Governor Rockefeller in 1970. He wore a suit that was creamy yellow with purple highlights. She concluded, as he recalled at a memorial service for her at Harlem’s St. Philip’s Church: “That boy is rough, but he’s going somewhere.” After the job interview, she pulled him aside and said: “Boy, who told you you looked good in that suit?” She took him shopping and got him something respectable in the government and business worlds in which he has soared.
When he was fourteen and already a loudmouthed civil rights activist, Al Sharpton, then the Brooklyn youth director for Dr. King’s Operation Breadbasket, led a delegation of youth to protest outside the governor’s office. After a time someone came out and told Sharpton that Mrs. Cunningham, someone he had never heard of, wanted to speak with him inside. When she asked what his group sought, he was still pretty much in the hollering mode. She interrupted to say: “I think that eventually you will get to a point.” And as he continued doing his best mau-mauing, she said: “Young man, you’re not going to scare me. I know Fidel Castro, and I knew Malcolm X.” She taught him how to focus his issues so those who wanted to help had a list to add to their agendas and make the most of their face time with people with power and influence. Even into her later years she met annually with Bruce Llewellyn, a major businessman who died in April, and presented him with a list of causes she wanted him to support.
In her 80s she insisted on walking the mile or so from her apartment building on Riverside Drive to mine for potluck dinner and, more importantly, to talk to young people I’d gathered there. If I had not run the CNN profile of her, they would never have known what she had accomplished in such a life well lived. But even without that visual backdrop, they were mesmerized and inspired. “Her zest for life was contagious,” Mayor David Dinkins, a former neighbor on Riverside, said of her at the memorial service at St. Philip’s.
She was never an invisible woman, and she made sure that a longtime neighbor, Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man, will not soon be forgotten. It is because of Evelyn and her cohorts that a beautiful memorial by Elizabeth Catlett is there across the street from their apartment building on Riverside Drive. Check it out, reflect, refresh, renew your vows to be well and to do good.