Margaret Cunningham was a shy, soft-spoken woman. She always got nervous when she had to give a speech. But her quiet demeanor never prevented her from fighting for what she believed in.
Cunningham, a tireless supporter of Schenectady’s youth, longtime supporter of the Capital Region arts community, civil rights activist and leader in promoting the arts and culture of the African Diaspora, died Dec. 24 at age 97 in her Schenectady home.
In 1968, she founded the Hamilton Hill Arts Center, which nearly half a century later still serves as a drop-in center for at-risk youth in Schenectady and a venue for African and African-American arts.
An artist with a lifelong passion for painting and pottery, Cunningham was one of the founders of Black Dimensions in Art Inc., which has served the Capital Region for more than 40 years, educating the public about artists of the African Diaspora and their contributions to the American art scene, and encouraging African-American youth in the practice and appreciation of the arts.
Those who knew her say she will be remembered as kind and caring, courageous and creative.
“She poured her heart and soul into everything that she did in the community,” says Trent Graham, president of Black Dimensions in Art.
She gave the community “a sense of culture” and showed “the beauty of art and what art means to the community, especially to people of color,” Graham says. “She gave encouragement and inspiration to both young and old, and helped them find their voices through artistic expression.”
Omoye Cooper, executive director of the Hamilton Hill Arts Center, first met Cunningham in the late 1960s when Cooper was a University at Albany student and African dance instructor in Albany.
Cunningham was “a warrior but a quiet warrior” and her mission was to “uplift our youth,” says Cooper. “She went about getting things done with no fuss, no hurrah.”
Cunningham’s daughter Miki Conn says her mother “cared intensely about the people of the world. She believed it was her responsibility to do as much as she could to help those in need — especially children. . . . She was as dedicated to the Center as she was to her personal family.”
Cunningham, who grew up in Brooklyn and was educated at Hampton University, Howard University and SUNY Albany, was ahead of her time.
“As an African American, she grew up in a community where light skin was considered better than dark skin and straight hair was better than kinky hair,” says Conn.
“This began to change as the concept of ‘Black is Beautiful’ began to spread among young people in the 1960s. She accepted my ‘Afro’ with some difficulty and then began wearing her own hair in that style. . . . She taught us that we had a responsibility to our race but we were not to be prejudiced ourselves. My parents’ friends were of all races and religions and were equally welcome in our home.”
When Cooper moved to Albany from Long Island, she left the cultural movement of the African Diaspora that was going strong in the New York City area.
“There was nothing [up] here,” she says.
Cooper had never heard of Schenectady but soon found herself teaching African dance at the Hamilton Hill Arts Center, which had just opened in a house on Schenectady Street. The center later moved to its present location at 409 Schenectady St.
The annual Kwanzaa celebration in our area started in Schenectady in the late 1970s, Cooper says.
“Mrs. C was really the person who introduced the whole Kwanzaa celebration to the Capital District.”
Conn followed in her mother’s footsteps as director of the Hamilton Hill Arts Center for 11 years until her retirement in 2011, and on Dec. 27, three days after her mother’s death, Conn was hosting a Kwanzaa celebration at the center. Conn, who is co-organizer of the Capital District Kwanzaa Coaltion, is also co-chair of Schenectady’s annual Juneteenth Celebration.
Cunningham regularly brought prominent artists to Hamilton Hill to inspire children and adults. In the center’s early years, Dr. Pearl Primus, an anthropologist who pioneered research of African dance, made a guest appearance and gave dance lessons.
“[Cunningham] was good with hooking up with people, important people that she could bring into our depressed community and brighten it up and enliven it,” says Cooper.
When she was growing up, the home that Miki shared with her mother, her father, Dr. James Cunningham, and sister, Fern, was filled with music and art.
“Mom learned to play the guitar when I was about 4 years old and learned both classical and folk guitar,” Conn says. “She was raised singing harmonies with her sisters while doing the dishes. She also raised my sister and me to sing harmony along with her. Her love of music was broad and included everything from classical to gospel to folk and blues.”
Cunningham was an adventurous cook.
“Cooking was another one of her art forms and she enjoyed experimenting with new recipes and foods of other cultures. She also cooked from the African American and West Indian traditions,” says Conn.
In 2011, Cunningham self-published a book, “Integrating Delmar: The Story of a Friendship,” based on her journal entries.
“If something interested Mom, she would learn how to do it, and most times, she did it well,” says Conn.
Graham describes Cunningham as “warm and welcoming, very much to all people. She had a very good sense of humor. She liked to laugh and dance.”
Conn will always remember her mother’s courage.
“She would get serious jitters before speaking, but she did it many times. It never got easier for her. But she did whatever she felt she needed to do, especially if it would benefit others.”
Keeping the Hamilton Hill Arts Center going has been a struggle, says Cooper, and it couldn’t stay open without volunteers.
“A lot of volunteers we get now are children that grew up at the art center.”
When times are tough, remembering Cunningham and her mission energizes them. “When the money runs out, we still got the love. That’s how we manage to stay open,” Cooper says.
“We’ve lost an icon but she’s still with us in so many ways.”
Reach Gazette reporter Karen Bjornland at 395-3197, email@example.com or on Twitter @bjorngazette.