Milton D. Cunningham took out the permit in 1951 to build this house for himself and wife Gwendolyn. Both were educators in Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools. Dr. Gwendolyn Davidson Cunningham won national notice for her deft handling of racial integration at Oaklawn Elementary School, where she was founding principal in 1964.
Oaklawn Elementary School, wrote national education reporter Pat Watters in 1971, “is considered one of the most successful in taking advantage of new educational opportunities in Charlotte. The philosophy of the black principal, Mrs. Gwendolyn D. Cunningham, pervades classrooms and hallways [and] is reflected in the openness of black and white faces of the children. The philosophy seems to be one of loving children and encouraging the best in them. She moves about the school, energetic, enthusiastic, calling out to children, seemingly knowing each by name, stopping to talk with any who wants to.”
Gwendolyn Davis Cunningham (2.12.1919 – 7.2.2013) got her love of education and her energetic leadership style from her parents. Her father Rev. Robert James Sylvester Davidson served as Superintendent and Principal at Western Union Academy in Spindale, N.C., about an hour west of Charlotte. In the 1920s the family moved to Kings Mountain, N.C., between Charlotte and Shelby, where Rev. Davidson took charge of a newly built Rosenwald School which eventually became known as Davidson High in his honor. Rev. Davidson also led Baptist churches in Shelby and Kings Mountain and with wife Frances Wilson Davidson raised two daughters and four sons.
The family gave Gwendolyn and her sister Thelma responsibilities from an early age. In church, “Gwendolyn and Thelma read scriptures, sang solos and took meeting minutes,” her obituary noted. Her mother, a school teacher and funeral home director, also involved young Gwendolyn in real-world work, including comforting families at funerals. Continued the obituary:
“Gwendolyn and her siblings were members of a well-organized structured family. They sat down to meals three times a day at a table covered with a white table cloth. They had designated hours for study, language acquisition and piano practice. For many years Gwendolyn and Thelma were designated to collect the rents from their father’s rental properties. Clients learned they were as stern and businesslike as their disciplined father.”
The family sent Gwendolyn to Lincoln Academy, a highly-regard private middle school/high school for black pupils run by the American Missionary Association. She found inspiration there not just from teachers but also from visiting speakers including Howard Thurman, nationally renowned Civil Rights clergyman known for his leadership at Howard University and later Boston University during the 1950s and 60s. She went on to Barber-Scotia Seminary, earned her B.A. at Bennett College in Greensboro in 1938, then an M.A. in Education at Columbia University in New York City.
She began teaching in Cleveland County schools near Kings Mountain, then came to Charlotte to teach at Fairview Elementary. Along the way she met and married Milton D. “Dan” Cunningham (1914 – 1980), a World War II veteran from nearby Lancaster, S.C. He was a schoolteacher, too, earning his M.A. from Columbia University in 1949. The next year, the couple took out permits to build in McCrorey Heights. “Theirs was a loving partnership,” friends later remembered. “Their home was a haven to the family and the site of many wonderful social events.”
By 1952 Mrs. Cunningham was principal at Double Oaks Elementary School. It served African American students in the Fairview Homes public housing project and the privately developed Double Oaks apartments. In 1954 the school moved into a glistening modern building by architect A.G. Odell.
When Oaklawn Elementary opened in 1964 across the street from her house, Mrs. Cunningham became its founding principal. Initially an all-black school, it began desegregation about 1969 following the ruling by Charlotte judge James McMillan in the landmark case Swann v Mecklenburg. By the time the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that decision in 1971, Mrs. Cunningham already had a new integrated culture in place, as reported by Pat Watters.
She kept an eye out for young pupils with top grades and strong character who would be good candidates for integration of Charlotte’s junior high and high schools. Sam Fulwood III, son of a minister who lived nearby in McCrorey Heights, later wrote about feeling pride — and trepidation — when she tapped him in 1968. “One day when I was in sixth grade, Principal Gwen Cunningham summoned me to her office. Mrs. Cunningham, who was always immaculately dressed and smelled as though she took baths in a large vat of floral perfume, handed me some papers…. ‘I’ve talked with your teacher. Mrs. Wheeler says you are one of the best students in her class and she thinks you should go to Ranson Junior High next year. I think you and your parents should be very proud.'” The school board turned down Fulwood’s initial transfer request, but he became part of integration at McClintock Junior High, Garinger High, UNC Chapel Hill, and in his worklife as a reporter for publications from the Charlotte Observer to Time magazine.
In addition to her job as principal, Mrs. Cunningham worked in many other ways to build community. A 1951 Pittsburgh Courier article took notice of her activities with the Delta Sigma Theta sorority helping high school students connect with employment opportunities. When the U.S. Government launched the Head Start pre-school program in the mid 1960s, Mrs. Cunningham became Education Director for Charlotte. She served on the boards of the N.C. Mental Health Authority, Foundation for the Carolinas, Charlotte United Way and was elected Co-Moderator of the Charlotte-area presbytery of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools honored Gwen Cunningham as Elementary Principal of the Year in 1975 and also 1982. Her reputation earned notice from UNC Charlotte, which invited her to become a regular lecturer in the College of Education starting in the late 1970s. She returned to her alma mater Barber-Scotia College to chair the Division of Education in the 1990s.
While Mrs. Cunningham earned the spotlight, husband Milton D. Cunningham (1.9.1914 – 5.9.1980) functioned as quiet support. He served in the Air Force during World War II, then spent six years with the Employment Security Commission. He found his true calling as an educator, first in Gaston County, then in Mecklenburg County where he taught from 1953 til retirement in 1976. Like many men in McCrorey Heights, he was active in the Presbyterian Church, serving as a deacon at First United Presbyterian in downtown Charlotte, and he also belonged to a lifelong fraternity, Omega Psi Phi. “An expert bridge player, Mr. Cunningham was a member of the Bridgeteers and the Metrolina Duplicate Bridge Club,” noted his funeral program. “Dan was quiet and unassuming in manner. He cherished his family, his friends, his church, his colleagues and the hundreds of students whose lives he touched.”
Ranch. Brick one-story with gable roof. The original owner expanded the house to the rear in 1967 and added a matching detached carport at the back of the lot.
Date issued: November 14, 1951
Owner: M.D. Cunningham
Contractor: Thomas & Renis [Denis?] Building Company [also built 1641 Oaklawn]
Other permit info: Build residence
Date issued: March 20, 1967
Owner: M. Daniel Cunningham
Contractor: Cecil B. Threadgill
Estimated cost: $12,325
Other permit info: addition, new bedroom, kitchen, bath, den, and carport
Building permit files, Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.
First appeared in city directory
1953 – Milton D. Cunningham & Gwendolyn D.
He: Teacher, Public Schools. She: Principal, Double Oaks School.
1982 – Samuel L. Cureton & Julia.
He: Porter, Douglas Airport. She: No occupation listed.
(also Gordon & Shaun, students, live here)
City directory collection, Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.
Cunningham, Gwendolyn, funeral program in the collection of Audwin Ross.
Cunningham, Gwendolyn, obituary, Charlotte Observer, July 9, 2013. On-line at: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/charlotte/obituary.aspx?pid=165752623
Cunningham, Milton, Funeral program in the History Room, First United Presbyterian Church, Charlotte.
Cunningham, Milton D. grave marker at Oaklawn Cemetery, Charlotte. Photograph is on-line at: https://billiongraves.com/grave/Milton-D-Cunningham/12433249#/
Davidson Elementary School, National Register of Historic Places, 2016. https://www.nps.gov/nr/feature/places/16000287.htm
Davidson, Robert James, grave marker at Oaklawn Cemetery, Charlotte. Photograph is on-line at:
“Delta Sigma Theta,” Pittsburgh Courier, March 15, 1952.
Sam Fulwood III, Waking from the Dream: My Life in the Black Middle Class (New York: Anchor Books, a Division of Randowm House, 1996), pp. 1, 22 – 30.
Pat Watters, “The Vital Factor in School Desegregation: The Resilience and Goodness of the Young,” St. Petersburg Times, August 21, 1971.