cunningham center
Members of the Cunningham family and the Manchester community attended the “Trailblazers” VIA and ribbon-cutting ceremony on May 2 to honor the legacy of Joseph and Martha Cunningham and the newly named Cunningham Academic Center.
Photo by MU

Cunningham Academic Center Named after Manchester’s First Black Students

Sam France

On May 2, the Academic Center was renamed the Cunningham Academic Center after two African American siblings who grew up near Kokomo, Indiana.

Joseph and Martha (Mattie) Cunningham were Manchester University’s first African American students. They lived during a rough era of racial violence in the United States around the late 1800s and early 1900s.

At first, the students at Manchester were not accepting of the two trailblazers. They spent a lot of time off-campus especially eating their meals at the beginning of their first year.

That changed during their second year when, a future Manchester president, Otho Winger, then a student, created a student support group for Joseph and Mattie. He invited them both to eat at his table in the dining hall.

During his time at Manchester, Joseph was a gifted debater, a manager on the baseball team and center for the basketball team. He was a solid student and extroverted compared to his sister. There was a photograph taken of Joseph and his basketball teammates where he was being embraced by his all-white team. It was a rare occurrence for the time period and goes to show how Joseph found his place at Manchester.

Joseph was one of the first African Americans to play college basketball and possibly the first to play on an integrated college basketball team. After graduating from Manchester, he went on to marry and attend medical school in Chicago. He served as a physician until his death.

Mattie made mostly A’s during her time at the university and could have won the magna cum laude award if it was an award at the time. She was involved in the Bible society and was an insightful and gifted writer with a deeply inquisitive mind. During her attendance at Manchester there were only 252 African American female graduates at the time in America.

Mattie spent the early part of her career after Manchester working to improve the lives of Black families in the segregated South. As a child, she spent time in the Church of the Brethren, so when she was older she worked to create a congregation in Arkansas and in the Midwest. In 1911, she became the first woman to become a minister in the denomination.

These trailblazers have left an impressive legacy of persistence, bravery, and achievement, especially with the challenge of systematic oppression.

Their legacy was celebrated May 2, with many descendants attending both a VIA on Joseph and Mattie’s lives and the following naming ceremony. They were given a round of applause as they were introduced by President Dave McFadden. The university choir then sang a beautiful song in honor of Joseph and Mattie. Historian Nicholas Patler and multiple descendants shared their knowledge of the trailblazers. Some of the other family members in the crowd stood and told their stories.

After the VIA, the family and other attendees went to the entrance of the now Cunningham Academic Center for the ribbon cutting. Pres Dave first spoke about the other buildings named after special individuals including the Jean Childs Young Intercultural Center. He then went on to give the background of Joseph and Mattie and introduced Jamar Reid to unveil the sign.

Reid echoed what he spoke about in the VIA. “This is a very exciting time for our family, and we have had family members travel from the east coast and the west coast,” he said. "Again, we would like to thank the university, and this is a huge honor.”

Brionna Howard, a first-year at Manchester and the recipient of the Multicultural Excellence and Leadership scholarship, spoke at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. She discussed her eye-opening experiences here, in rural Indiana, and her adjustments coming from her large high school. “Renaming the Academic Center after the first African American students is warming,” she said. “I’m grateful for the representation that exists on our campus, and now to rename the Academic Center shows how invested Manchester is in making inclusion its first priority.”

Pres. Dave then invited the family to cut the ribbon to make the renaming official.