Hattie Williams Cunningham
By William F. Hanna
In June 2000, ten teachers retired from the Taunton public school system, but only nine of them thought it was something to celebrate. The tenth was Hattie Williams Cunningham, a veteran teacher who, but for the illness that was stealing her life away, would have happily remained in her first-grade classroom for a much longer time. Her departure robbed not only her students but the whole community of a woman whose life was shaped by struggle, hard work, and hope for the future. Perhaps most important, her experiences as a younger woman had given her a perspective on life and education that was unfamiliar to many in her adopted city.
Mrs. Cunningham was born Hattie Williams in 1932 in Pompano, Florida. As a Black child growing up in the Deep South, her birthright included a full share of the pain and frustration of second class citizenship. Her segregated schools were just one part of a crushing system of inequality, a debilitating grind meant to teach her and every African American that “coloreds” had never measured up, and never would. Rosa Parks, who in 1955 famously refused to give up her seat on a bus to a White man, spoke eloquently of the repressive system named for Jim Crow. “He walks us on a tight rope from birth to the end of life’s span, whether it be long or of brief duration,” she said. “Little children are so conditioned early to learn their place in the segregated pattern as they take their first toddling steps and are weaned from their mother’s breast.”
With few exceptions, this ingrained racism was supported across every avenue of Southern society from employment to medical care and journalism. The justice system throughout the South was blatantly discriminatory, and if legal means weren’t enough to keep Blacks in their place, then violence was an ever-present alternative. As a young woman, perhaps Hattie knew that Florida lynched more Black Americans per capita than any state in the nation.
As unfriendly as the outside world sometimes was, Hattie found love and direction from within her family. The daughter of a Pullman conductor and a school teacher, she and her two sisters were brought up with strong religious faith and a love of education. Upon learning that there wouldn’t be enough money for Hattie to attend college, her aunt and uncle stepped forward and agreed to pay her way through school. In 1950, she enrolled as a freshman at Bethune-Cookman College* in Daytona, Florida.
Hattie’s decision to attend Bethune-Cookman was certainly one of the most important of her life. This historically Black college was co-founded in 1904 by Mary McLeod Bethune, an educator as well as a feminist, and one of the icons of the Civil Rights movement in the generation before Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Medgar Evers. One of seventeen children born to South Carolina ex-slaves, she was an internationally known educator, writer, and organizer. A long time personal friend of both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Mrs. Bethune had founded the National Council of Negro Women and served in FDR’s “Black Cabinet” during the New Deal.
When Hattie arrived on the Bethune-Cookman campus in the autumn of 1950, Mrs. Bethune was in the last years of her life, but in retirement she remained an energetic and inspirational presence on campus. She took an interest in every student and under her mentorship Hattie prepared for a life of service to others. She and other students once joined Mrs. Bethune in a march to the Daytona airport, where the group met Eleanor Roosevelt as she arrived for one of her visits to the college.
When Hattie graduated from Bethune-Cookman in 1954 with honors and a degree in elementary education, she entered the wider world at the very moment the modern Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum. Within days of her graduation the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark Brown decision, outlawing racial segregation in public schools. This began the slow but systematic dismantling of the legal framework of racial segregation. Tensions ran high throughout the South as die-hards, under the guise of “states’ rights,” defiantly pledged to continue to enforce the old Jim Crow laws. For the next two decades, a new generation of African Americans, better educated and relentlessly intolerant of the status quo, made history in places like Montgomery, Little Rock, and Selma.
Hattie Williams was an active member of this idealistic new generation, but she found that progress would be slow and painstaking. When she discovered that jobs for African American teachers were few and far between, she did what generations of Black people had done before her: she enlisted in the U.S. army. Assigned to the Medical Corps, she served at a number of posts in the South and Southwest.
It was in the army that Hattie met Sergeant James A. Cunningham, a combat veteran of the Korean War. An Alabamian by birth, Sgt. Cunningham had enlisted immediately after high school, and by the time he met Hattie he was a well-respected army training instructor. Upon her discharge, they married at Fort Knox, Kentucky.
Although Hattie’s enlistment was up, James was a career army man and that meant moving to a new base every time he was reassigned. After Fort Knox, the Cunninghams packed up and headed to bases in Alabama, Virginia, and finally Oklahoma. Each successive move was made more difficult because their young family was growing. First came James Jr., and he was followed by John, Patricia, and Kathryn. At one point in the mid-1960s, Hattie and the children accompanied Sgt. Cunningham to Europe as he reported for a tour of duty at the U.S. Army supply depot in Ingrandes, France. Upon their return, James was posted to Fort Sill, Oklahoma before receiving orders to ship out for Vietnam.
Just as her enrollment at Bethune-Cookman had represented a turning point in Hattie’s life, James’s assignment to Southeast Asia brought another. She decided that in his absence she didn’t want to raise their children alone on an army base in Oklahoma, and she also didn’t want them to grow up in the Deep South. With that in mind she set out to join her sister, Allie Mae McCone, who was raising her own family in Taunton, Massachusetts.
The Cunninghams arrived in Taunton in 1968, a tumultuous year that saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, as well as rising discontent over the war in Vietnam. Although she had left the Jim Crow South, Hattie was well aware that the struggle for full equality did not end when she crossed the Mason-Dixon Line. Even in Taunton, a working-class city with a relatively small African American population, it wasn’t easy to find housing and it would take time for the family to gain full acceptance in a conservative community.
Hattie wasted no time in establishing her priorities in her adopted city. She and the children joined the First Portuguese Baptist Church on Winthrop Street. In the ensuing years she would become a mainstay of the congregation, but initially she joined others in advocating renaming the church to better reflect the cultural and racial diversity of its membership. This campaign was successful, and the church changed its name to the more inclusive Baptist Church of All Nations. In addition to singing in the choir, Hattie served as a church deaconess, superintendent of the Sunday school, and a member of the Board of Trustees.
By the time her husband returned to the States after a second tour in Vietnam, Hattie and her young family were well established in Taunton. They enjoyed the safety and security of the city and the children were successfully placed in neighborhood schools. For that reason, the Cunninghams decided not to disrupt the family by moving again, and from that time forward Hattie and the children travelled during summers, holidays, and school vacations to visit James. His assignments sent them to bases in Arkansas, Virginia and finally, in 1974, to Maryland, where he closed out his 26-year army career.
Back in Taunton, Mrs. Cunningham’s devotion to her church was matched by her commitment to social justice. Although racial discrimination in the northern states was often — but not always — more subtle and less confrontational, it was nonetheless real. She never failed to call attention to it, sometimes at the risk of her own safety. As a graduate of Bethune-Cookman College she had been educated in an activist tradition and would have seen it as a betrayal to stand in the background during any fight for racial justice. “If we accept and acquiesce in the face of discrimination,” wrote Mary McLeod Bethune, “we accept the responsibility ourselves.” In keeping that faith Hattie served as the first president of the Taunton chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and she was also a member of the Concerned Afro Coalition. In later years, because she had been born and raised in the Old South, she was in great demand as a speaker who could remember the hopes and dreams of a Black child living under the heel of Jim Crow.
It was also in Taunton that Mrs. Cunningham found her place as a teacher. When she was first married, she had taken occasional opportunities to offer remedial instruction to recruits stationed at army posts, but that held no future. In Taunton, however, she was offered and accepted a public school contract in 1970. She began her career as a first grade teacher at the Weir Elementary School and later moved on to similar assignments at the Caswell School and finally at the Elizabeth Pole School.
While everybody completes first grade, only a special few can teach first grade. It’s not a job for the timid or faint-hearted. In addition to having the wisdom of Solomon and the patience of Job, one must combine only the noblest qualities of a demanding drill sergeant, a loving surrogate mother, and a committed jack-of-all-trades. At this, Mrs. Cunningham was among the best of the best for thirty years. At one of the most critical junctures in children’s education, she brought something special to their lives as she tried to lay the foundation for the skills that would guide them to ultimate success. She taught them their first letters and numbers, but not only that. In an underserved, multi-ethnic, and -racial working-class city she showed them, by example, that we’re all God’s children, that some of us struggle more than others, and that each of us matters. Anything less simply will not do.
To the most gifted teachers, it’s more than a job. It’s a labor of love, a way of life not to be surrendered lightly. That’s why, despite her rapidly failing health in the spring of 2000, Mrs. Cunningham saw no cause to revel in the prospect of retirement. And when she died four months later, her great loss was felt across the city.
In the course of her career, hundreds of children passed through Mrs. Cunningham’s classroom. All of them are adults now, some with children of their own; many still live in Taunton. Perhaps, based on their own life’s experience, they would agree to let Rosa Parks, herself no stranger to toil and struggle, offer a brief eulogy for their first grade teacher. “Memories of our lives,” said Mrs. Parks hopefully, “of our words and deeds, will continue in others.”
*Bethune-Cookman College attained university status in 2007.