Source: NMHS Newsletter, November 1991
Two Who Endured
By Elizabeth L. Hendrix
Joe A. Cunningham: N’03MC+…only a name in Manchester College alumni directory, but the significance of that entry has meaning for the college, the community, and the history of human relations. He and his sister, Martha Cunningham (Dolby), were the first black students enrolled in Manchester College. Martha received a Bible degree in 1903, and Joe an English degree in 1903; further research reveals an elocution degree was awarded to Joe in 1906.
Joe played basketball. The college archives has a picture of his 1903-1904 team. He was active in the Lincoln Society, one of the literary societies at the time, and his interests leaned toward the sciences. He did not excel in grades but continued his schooling and became a medical doctor. Little is known about his career except that he was later associated with the Department of Health in Chicago.
Joe and Martha were from a family of 12 children originally from Ohio. While they were in public school, the family moved to Indiana, and they attended and graduated from New London High School. The family was once honored by New London for having “the most high school graduates of any family in the area.”
The grandparents had been missionaries in Africa, but their father was opposed to higher education for women. Girls could learn all they needed to know at home assisting with the duties of homemaking and caring for siblings, he said. Mattie, as she became known early in her life, was determined to pursue higher education.
Life was not easy for them on Manchester campus in 1900. They were barred from the dining room the first year and cooked and ate their meals off campus. Otho Winger, a fellow student, organized a support group for the Cunninghams, and they ate in the dining room the remainder of their stay at Manchester!
Mattie entered missionary service to Blacks in a depressed area of Arkansas after graduation. She started a school, but frequent bouts with malaria left her in poor health; she left the field in 1907 and returned to Ohio.
Mildred H. Grimley relates in The Gospel Messenger, “Growing up Black in the Church of the Brethren at the turn of the century offered no advantages, Mattie discovered. The doors of opportunity stood neither open nor ajar. But Mattie entered and in 1911 became the first woman the Brethren installed in the ministry. What happened afterward, however, would have defeated a lesser spirit.”
Mattie married Newtom Dolby, a licensed engineer, who was employed by Wilberforce College. They attended a Church of the Brethren some 12 miles from their home. After several years they were met at the door by new church officials who suggested they were no longer welcome and that perhaps they should find a church “closer to home.”
Without the luxury of bitterness, they found a Methodist Church nearby and attended regularly. She was a minister to a Church of God in Illinois from 1936 until her death in 1956. It is a tribute to her ministries that the white Church of God and the black Church of God merged shortly after her death and continued harmoniously.
Mattie gave fully of herself but sounded no trumpet. Her husband died in 1926; it was extremely hard to feed her family and to encourage them to gain a formal education. Her six children became contributing citizens to society; one of her grandsons was the first Peace Corps volunteer from Ohio to serve in South America.
An article by Mattie was printed in the Missionary Visitor in which she wrote, “As the hand on the dial of the 19th century clock pointed to the last figure, it showed that the American Negro had ceased to be a thing, a commodity that could be bought and sold, but was indeed a human being, that possesses all those qualities of mind and heart that belong to the rest of mankind, capable of receiving education and imparting it to his fellowmen, able to think, eat, feel, and develop those intellectual and moral qualities, such as characterize mankind generally.” What does the hand on the 20th century clock reveal?
Mattie C. Dolby, 1878-1956, humiliated by the church which
nurtured her, yet forgiving, wise, encouraging others, compassionate, a constant
student. A forerunner without
fanfare. And she attended
Manchester College. [Note: Dr. A. Ferne Baldwin, archivist of Manchester
College, gave invaluable help in research for this article. E.L.H.]