By Barney Blakeney
When it comes to native sons, there are cum yahs, bin yahs and belong yahs. Herb Cunningham came to Charleston in 1961 from Jamestown, N.Y. by way of Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C. But he always belonged yah. September 22 Charleston said goodbye to one of its most favorite sons. Charleston educator, entrepreneur, sports enthusiast and civic activist Herbert ‘Herb’ N. Cunningham died September 15 in Oregon while visiting family members. He was 76.
Cunningham was born in Chicago, Ill., the son of the late Ernest M. Cunningham and Mamie Matthew Dorsey. His family moved from Chicago when Cunningham was very young. He spent his formative years in Jamestown where he played sports, graduated from Jamestown High School and earned an athletic scholarship to Johnson C. Smith University. It was at Johnson C. Smith University that Cunningham obtained a B.A. Degree in Education and met Cecelia Gordon. They married and together had three daughters, Ardmease, Tamara and Bernateen.
Cunningham made Charleston his home and during his early career was a teacher at Burke High School, which began a relationship that lasted and evolved through the rest of his life. Obtaining a Master Degree in Counseling, Cunningham, with his wife, eventually founded Faith Counseling Center. But his business savvy and love for sports and people led him down several career paths. Always at the center of his activities were his passion for service tempered by a love of people and equal justice.
At different stages of his life in Charleston, Cunningham was a representative for Coca Cola Company, wrote a sports column and sold advertising for The Charleston Chronicle and managed the Gailliard Auditorium. As a radio personality he hosted ‘Let’s Talk Sports’ on WPAL-AM radio. Former Burke High Athletic Director Earl Brown said Cunningham opened a lot of eyes through his interviews and analysis of local sports issues.
As a civic activist Cunningham continued to influence those around him as a volunteer for the Democratic Party. He was an ardent advocate for Johnson C. Smith University Charleston Alumni Chapter, Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc., the United Negro College Fund and prior to his death served as Vice President for the Murray Hill Civic Association. Cunningham was a local representative for AARP and devoted much of his time to the North Charleston Recreation Department.
His daughters shared reflections of their father last week. “Daddy was extremely knowledgeable,” said middle daughter Tamara Curry. “He would read several national newspapers daily. He taught me to love history, listen to news radio and to keep up with current affairs. He gave me a world view.”
His oldest daughter Ardmease recalled riding on her father’s shoulders in marches during the Charleston Hospital Strike of 1969. Youngest daughter Bernateen says her father inspired her love of politics. As children they spread political flyers and candidates’ campaign literature throughout their neighborhood, she recalled. They each reflected on Cunningham as a man with an even temper who never differentiated into class the people with whom he came into contact. Most of all he was appreciative and repeatedly told them how good he felt they had been to him, they said.
In addition to all those who counted Cunningham among their most treasured friends Cunningham leaves to mourn him; his wife, Cynthia Alston Cunningham; three daughters; three stepdaughters; 10 grandchildren; two great-grandchildren; two brothers, John Dorsey and Maurice Dorsey; special friends, Jimmie and Cecelia Rogers; and a host of relatives.