Originally published in The New York Times.
By DANIEL LOVERING
Published: April 29, 2010
At a time when few women worked at newspapers — never mind as reporters handling hard news — Ms. Cunningham covered many of the civil rights era’s biggest stories, including the battle over school desegregation in Birmingham, Ala., and the work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
Starting in 1940, she worked for more than 20 years as a reporter and editor for The Pittsburgh Courier, a black newsweekly with nationwide circulation. Much of that time she worked out of the paper’s New York office.
In the newsroom, she was nicknamed “Big East,” partly because of her height, 5-foot-11 in heels. She also became known as the “lynching editor,” a reference to her reporting on such killings in the segregated South.
“She was a heck of a newspaper gal and played a prominent role with the newspaper,” said Bill Nunn Jr., 84, who worked with Ms. Cunningham at the Pittsburgh headquarters of The Courier and later became the paper’s managing editor. In 1998, The Courier received a George Polk Award for its civil rights coverage, and Ms. Cunningham was among five former Courier reporters who accepted it.
Ms. Cunningham entered another realm of public life in the late 1960s, when she took a job as special assistant to Governor Rockefeller, who had been impressed with her when she interviewed him as a candidate.
Governor Rockefeller named her to lead an office on women’s affairs, and she later served on many government panels dealing with women’s rights and community issues. She continued to advise him when he became President Gerald R. Ford’s vice president.
Evelyn Elizabeth Long was born on Jan. 25, 1916, in Elizabeth City, N.C., the daughter of a taxi driver and a dressmaker. She moved with her parents to New York as a child, and earned a bachelor’s degree from Long Island University. She had no children. She had one brother, who died in 1973, and Ms. Cunningham raised his daughter, Ms. Freeman, her only immediate survivor.
For several years in the 1960s, Ms. Cunningham had a radio show on WLIB in New York called “At Home With Evelyn Cunningham.”
Ms. Cunningham helped establish the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, an advocacy group, and later devoted herself to charitable work, supporting many foundations and cultural institutions, like the Apollo Theater in Harlem and the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation.
“At one point when I first met her, she was on 14 boards,” said Robin Bell-Stevens, a longtime friend, who added that Ms. Cunningham often received calls from elected officials seeking advice. “They didn’t always hear what they liked, but they certainly got her point of view.”
Politically, Ms. Cunningham described herself as a “Rockefeller Republican,” Ms. Bell-Stevens said. “She said, ‘That means I’m a liberal Republican,’ and then she would add in more recent years that there hasn’t been a good one since.”
In a statement, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who appointed Ms. Cunningham to a commission on women’s issues in 2002, said, “With the passing of Evelyn Cunningham, all New Yorkers and all Americans who value our ideals of liberty and justice for all have lost a good friend and a fearless champion.”
A devoted jazz enthusiast, Ms. Cunningham entertained guests at her Harlem home over the years and developed friendships with many notable musicians, among them Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.
“She was a Southern belle that just adopted New York, and New York loved her like crazy,” said Phoebe Jacobs, 91, vice president of the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation.
Ms. Cunningham married four times, taking the name of her third husband. Her fourth marriage was to Austin Brown, a Juilliard-trained pianist and watchmaker who died last year.
“Each one of my husbands tried to diminish my independence and my work,” Ms. Cunningham said in a profile in The New York Times in 1998. “They all loved me most while I was cooking — and I am not a good cook.”
A version of this article appeared in print on April 30, 2010, on page A16 of the New York edition.