Renting to black family broke barriers, led to lasting friendship

A Brooklyn native, Margaret Cunningham had moved to the Albany area with her husband and their two y
Arlen Westbrook
Arlen Westbrook

Whenever something was troubling her, Margaret Cunningham would write down her thoughts at the end of a long day, and it always seemed to help. In the summer and fall of 1957, she was doing a lot of writing.

A Brooklyn native, Cunningham had moved to the Albany area with her husband and their two young children, and finding a nice home in a friendly neighborhood and a good school district were her top priorities. It was also a major problem. Cunningham and her family were black.

“I was annoyed with some of the things that were going on, so I felt like I had to put them down in writing,” said Cunningham, whose two young daughters were the first black children to attend the Bethlehem Central School District. “I got in the habit early of writing things down in a diary, so I feel like I’ve always been writing. But I never had any intention of making a book.”

For more info

“Integrating Delmar” is available at The Book House in Stuyvesant Plaza, I love Books in Delmar and The Open Door Bookstore in Schenectady.

But 54 years after moving to the Capital Region, Cunningham, 92, has done just that. She and Arlen Westbrook, the woman who invited Cunningham and her family into her home on Herrick Avenue, have produced a self-published book titled “Integrating Delmar: The Story of a Friendship.”

Two viewpoints

The book chronicles their meeting in the summer of 1957 and the two months they spent together in Westbrook’s house while Kendall Birr, Westbrook’s husband and a professor at the University at Albany, was spending a year teaching at Amherst College. Both women kept journals at the time, and that is how they put the book together — a chapter with one woman’s view of her experience followed by a chapter with the perspective of the other. Westbrook eventually joined her husband in Amherst, while the Cunninghams continued renting their house until they bought a home on Borthwick Avenue in Delmar in 1958.

It was upstate New York, not Selma, Ala., and there were no angry mobs and cops with police dogs walking the streets.

But there was a problem. Racism — not the flagrant and vicious acts you saw on newsreels from the South, but much more subtle and nuanced — was very much alive in and around Albany. James Cunningham, a black physician who came to Albany to work with the state Department of Health, couldn’t find a suitable place for his family to settle down.

“Every place they looked they were rejected on the basis of race,” said Miki Conn, Cunningham’s daughter. “Unless it was a ghetto neighborhood, they were turned away. There were fair-housing laws that had been passed around then, but it takes time for new laws to be implemented. I don’t know if there were specific laws against selling or renting to blacks in Delmar back then, but they did have these protected real estate covenants. It was informal, but Delmar was all white.”

Changing the scene

The Cunninghams changed that. In 1957, the couple had just moved to the area from Alaska where James, a native of the Bronx, had been working at a tuberculosis hospital.

While he worked during the day in Albany, Margaret’s time was spent looking for a place to live, and that was proving to be quite a challenge until a colleague of her husband’s, Dr. Marian Yankauer, asked Westbrook if she and her husband might rent their house to a black family.

With her husband already gone for the summer and Westbrook preparing to join him in the fall, she saw no reason not to rent to the Cunninghams. At the time, however, Westbrook concedes she did have a few second thoughts about renting to black people, an admission she bristles at these days.

“I can remember thinking, ‘Well, I hope they’re not too black,’ ” said Westbrook. “I guess anyone who claims to be totally free of racism is fooling themselves. I grew up in an all-white town in Wisconsin, and we had stereotypes against Catholics, Jews, blacks, foreigners and Democrats. So, no one is without some form of prejudice.”

Westbrook said she quickly rid herself of any doubt regarding the Cunninghams moving in.

“I couldn’t think of a reason not to rent to them, and even when we realized it might not be easy, we knew it was the right thing to do,” she said. “We knew there was a lot of talk around. We never heard it ourselves, except second- or third-hand, but I think that just stirred our resolve to do it. I think the Cunninghams were worried about what they might be subjecting their children to [by] sending their kids to an all-white school. They had that sensitivity, that possible worry, but I never had any regrets.”

Forming a bond

During those two months, while Westbrook remained in Delmar, the white woman and the black family became close. Cunningham said she immediately realized she had a good friend in Westbrook.

“I liked her very much, and we became very good friends,” said Cunningham. “Our children loved her, and she loved our children. She’d come home from work, I would be fixing dinner, and she’d say, ‘Where are the kids?’ She’d get into her jeans and go off with the kids all on their bicycles, then they’d come back at dinner time.”

Conn was 12 when her family moved to Delmar and her younger sister, Fern, now an art teacher in Boston, was 8.

“We could play with the other kids, but they couldn’t let their fathers know,” remembered Conn. “The mothers seemed a little more relaxed about it, but I can remember, at first we couldn’t go to their house but it was OK for them to come to our house.”

That’s because Margaret Cunningham was a kid-magnet. The founder of Schenectady’s Hamilton Hill Arts Center in 1968, Cunningham taught her own and the neighborhood’s kids how to paint, make crafts and work with ceramics.

“She has many, many talents,” said James Cunningham, referring to his wife. “When we first came here, she taught art and ceramics at the Arbor Hill Community Center. Before that, she was teaching the Eskimo children in Alaska, and then when we moved to Schenectady [in 1962] she started the Hamilton Hill Arts Center. It’s amazing what this woman has done.”

James Cunningham earned a degree in science at City College, and then went on to Howard University Medical School and Albany Medical College. His wife has never had the time to get her college degree, but she has taken courses at the Harlem YMCA Business School, Hampton Institute, Howard University (where she met her husband) and the University at Albany.

Along with being the driving force behind the creation of the Hamilton Hill Arts Center, Cunningham was also a founding member of Black Dimensions in Art and was also instrumental in the formation of the CORE Singers, a folksinging group that raised money for the Congress of Racial Equality. Cunningham sang and played the guitar.

Alternating voices

Cunningham and Westbrook came up with the idea of putting together their two journals and publishing “Integrating Delmar” earlier this year. Conn did much of the editing, and also had to track down her mother’s journal.

“My mom asked me if I could find her journal, so I went down in the basement shuffling through all these papers, not really knowing what I was looking for,” she said. “Eventually, I found it, I printed it out in 15-point type so my mother could see it, and she started editing it. Arlen was doing the same thing with her journal, and then I put them together into the book, alternating their voices.”

Westbrook was more than happy to participate in the process.

“I can remember that Margaret and I had kept diaries, we shared some of what we wrote with each other, and then we put them in a file and forgot about them,” she said. “But then I realized that those diaries, now more than 50 years old, are a part of history. I thought it was important to put them in the public domain, [and] make sure there was a copy at the Delmar Library. Margaret and I kept on communicating with each other, and then with Miki’s help we put it all together.”

Westbrook and Birr were divorced after 10 years of marriage. She moved to Voorheesville with her second husband, Perry Westbrook, another University at Albany professor, and after his death married another college professor, Marshall Clinard, and moved to Santa Fe, N.M. After he died in 2010, Westbrook moved back to Delmar.

A graduate of the University of Wisconsin with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in sociology, Westbrook also got a master’s in social work from the University at Albany and worked at the Capital Area Speech Center before retiring in 2001.

“Margaret and I always stayed in touch,” she said. “We became such good friends. We shared a lot of personal things, and that never changed.”

The only real stumbling block ever between Margaret and Arlen was with the family pets. Westbrook had a cat; the Cunninghams had a dog and a cat.

“I waited for those few little words that would put an end to our dream,” wrote Margaret in her diary. “ ‘Sorry, we can’t take animals.’ Instead, after some deliberation she [Westbrook] said, ‘Well, I like dogs. If you think he could get along with my cat?’ ”

“So, we kept our dog and decided to give our cat to Jim’s mother,” said Cunningham.

Categories: Life and Arts

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