African American Studies
Interviewees: James and Margaret Cunningham
Interviewers: Mark Naison and Natasha Lightfoot
Date: January 9, 2006
Summarized by Leigh Waterbury
James Cunningham was born in the Bronx in 1918 and describes what life was like in his household and his neighborhood. His father was a light-skinned black man who was considered colored while in WWI, and later when he moved to New York City to work as a customs inspector he was able to pass as white, which likely helped him to acquire that position. James attended PS 23 elementary school in his neighborhood around 167th street, where he was the only boy of color in the whole school. He explains that while growing up, skin color was never really something that was focused on in his household, and also was not an issue in the community either. His mother raised him and his four younger siblings to be focused on family and education rather than anything race related. Although he was the only boy of color in his elementary school and very much the minority in junior high PS 51 as well as Morris High School, he never really felt a sense of racial hostility until an experience while attending Morris. There was a dance class being offered and when he tried to sign up for the class he was told that all colored people were born natural dancers so therefore he did not need to take lessons and could not be in the class. This was his first experience being racially identified.
As for his experience in the home it was a bit of a sheltered one. His mother was a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and thought that music was related to the devil so it was not really allowed in the home. He did get to experience the jazz era and musicians like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong by listening to radio programs and going to shows with a friend. Politics were also not discussed in the household. His fathers’ political theory was that he was Republican and going to remain that way because Lincoln was Republican and he freed the slaves. During the Depression his family was not very much affected because his father had a government job with a reliable income, but he did notice indications of suffering in the community.
Margaret Cunningham, James’ wife, was born and raised in Brooklyn in the Bedford-Stuyvesant community, and experienced a much different upbringing than James. She grew up in a predominantly black community and was always conscious of her race and Black culture. She does not really recall many racial prejudices, but she does not remember having white friends or really being around that community too much. Although the two were from New York City, they met in Washington DC. Both described living in DC as being much more segregated. Margaret described the segregation on buses and public places as well as the difficulty for a black person to be promoted even though they were just as qualified. For James it was a very different experience from what he was used to in the Bronx, since he never really dealt with those issues growing up.
African American History Project, Bronx, "Cunningham, James and Cunningham, Margaret" (2006). Oral Histories. 338.