In the News

Lincoln Society 1903 Joe Cunningham front center

Manchester to name building in honor of first Black students

NORTH MANCHESTER, Ind. -- Manchester University will name its Academic Center in honor of Manchester’s first African-American students, Martha and Joseph Cunningham.

“I can think of no better way for Manchester to honor the Cunninghams than to name a hall of learning for them,” said Manchester President Dave McFadden.

Siblings who grew up near Kokomo, Ind., the Cunninghams graduated in 1903.

Mattie Cunningham Dolby Used with permission by North Manchester Historical SocietyMartha “Mattie” Cunningham Dolby spent the early part of her career working to improve the lives of impoverished Black families in the segregated South. Having spent much of her childhood in the Church of the Brethren, she worked to establish several congregations in the South and Midwest. In 1911, she became the first woman to be installed as a Brethren minister. 

Her brother moved to Chicago after graduating from Manchester and became a physician. He received a Bachelor of English degree from Manchester College in 1903. He was also recognized for completing the program in elocution in 1904.*

The Cunninghams arrived at Manchester in an era of intense racial violence in the United States, according to historian Nicholas Patler. A number of Manchester students did not accept the Cunninghams and made them feel unwelcome. At first, the two prepared and ate their meals off campus.

That changed in their second year, when fellow student and future Manchester president Otho Winger organized a student support group in solidarity with the Cunninghams, which included eating together in the dining hall.

Gender dictated very different college experiences for the siblings.

Joe received financial support from his father and was active on campus, joining the Lincoln Society literary group, and honing his skills at debate and elocution. He also played on the men’s basketball team and managed the baseball team.

Mattie’s father was quoted as saying that the role of women was “to wash and cook and have babies,” and he did not financially support her efforts. She paid for her education by working many hours in the college kitchen. That she graduated was an impressive achievement at the turn of the century, according to Patler. At the time, there were just 252 Black female college graduates in the nation. 

Academic Center“More than 100 years later, the Cunninghams leave a legacy of tenacity, courage, and achievement in the face of adversity,” McFadden said. “Their story reflects the challenges of their time and Manchester’s own journey through that time. Their story is our story – where we have been and the work that remains. Shining a light on the Cunninghams can help inspire all of us to discover our best selves.”

The Board of Trustees voted unanimously Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021, to change the name of the building. A formal dedication for the Martha Cunningham and Joseph Cunningham Academic Center is in the works for the spring semester.

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Photo credits:

  •  March 1903 photo of the Lincoln Society with Joseph Cunningham in front center is from the Manchester University Archives.
  • Photo of Mattie Cunningham Dolby is used with permission by the North Manchester Historical Society. Manchester University does not own the photo. To use it, please request permission from the historical society,

    For more information about Mattie Cunningham Dolby
    , see Patler’s “Recovering African American Voice and Experience in Brethren History: A Biographical Essay on Mattie Cunningham Dolby, 1878-1956,”

    About Manchester: With campuses in North Manchester and Fort Wayne, Ind., Manchester University provides vibrant and transformative student experiences at an affordable price. Learn more at

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    Manchester University respects the infinite worth of every individual and graduates persons of ability and conviction who draw upon their education and faith to lead principled, productive, and compassionate lives that improve the human condition.

    *The Normal English course was designed as a professional course for teachers.  It contained sufficient work in mathematics, science, language, history and pedagogy to give the graduate professional standing as a teacher. The degree was Bachelor of English. Oration or a thesis was required each term of the senior year, or an equivalent of approved work in one of the Literary Societies.