Growing up in the close-knit Titusville community of Birmingham in the 1940s, Vivian Cunningham was an only child who had a happy life, surrounded by family and friends, playing children’s games and enjoying her neighborhood.
Early on, she was shielded from the inequalities faced by Blacks. Cunningham attended segregated Cameron-Lane Elementary, which a half-century earlier had been built as the city’s first public primary school for Black students.
Her school years preceded the major clashes over civil rights, including when Birmingham students marched in the historic children’s crusade of 1963. But Cunningham had begun seeing racism creep into her life in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when she learned her hometown was divided into different realities for Blacks and whites.
“I grew up when they had the ‘colored’ seats on the bus,” Cunningham said. “Black people had to sit separately in the theaters. We had to drink out of different water fountains. We had to go to the back of restaurants to order food through a little window. We had a lot of heartache and pain going through all that back in the day.”
After graduating from segregated Ullman High School, she took sewing classes at Wenonah Vocational and Trade School (now Lawson State Community College), married and moved to Atlanta. While living in Georgia, she received the devastating news about the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four little girls, including the sister of a former classmate. Cunningham and many other Blacks found themselves wary of even seeking the haven provided in churches.
Two months later, Cunningham was stunned to hear that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. His death on Nov. 22, 1963, was a blow to Black Americans, who thought the young president was their best hope since Abraham Lincoln for civil rights progress. Kennedy had appointed Blacks to federal offices, ordered an end to discrimination in employment and housing and, shortly before his death, launched an initiative for equal education access and protection of voting rights.
“It was just hurtful when he was assassinated,” she said. “It was hard for us to get over.”
Cunningham would enjoy living in Atlanta for five years before divorce brought her and the couple’s two children back to Birmingham. While they lived in her mother’s house for about two years, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Cunningham found herself anguished over the loss of America’s foremost civil rights leader, the former Montgomery preacher who had been helping Blacks in Birmingham overcome racial obstacles.
In the midst of social upheaval, Cunningham was beginning to fight for her own rights. A friend mentioned there was a job opening at Alabama Power: She applied and was soon hired. Cunningham moved into an apartment with her children and spent 13 years on the night shift before a former co-worker recommended her for a daytime job.
Supervisor Ed Nesmith hired Cunningham in the Alabama Power Mail Center, where she would later help train Alex Leonard, Kerry Welsh and John Bass, who is now Mail Services supervisor. Welsh is now mail coordinator and Leonard retired in 2020 as mail coordinator.
“I remember Vivian fondly; she is a very sweet lady,” Bass said. “I only worked in the Mail Center for about nine months back in 1983, but Vivian was very helpful to me, as a new guy, learning the job. She always had a positive attitude.”
Cunningham retired in 1996 after 29 years with Alabama Power. Yet, she missed the fellowship of co-workers, so she took a receptionist position with Children’s Hospital, then after a few years retired. Later, she returned to Children’s and, after a few years, re-retired. Then she returned to Children’s again and, in 2020, after nearly five more years back on the job, retired again.
While working at Alabama Power, Cunningham had taken advantage of the employee tuition reimbursement program. She periodically attended Birmingham-Southern College, UAB and Virginia College, where she earned an associate degree in paralegal studies. She was later intrigued by a Samford University brochure and began taking night classes in the professional studies program.
“The last time I went back to college I was determined I was going to finish, but it was a challenge,” she said of her 15-year classroom journey. “It was a long and hard struggle, but I stuck with it.”
There was also the issue of computer skills, or lack thereof, which her children, Tarra Barnes and Donald Cunningham, helped their mother overcome. Those skills became important during the pandemic when Cunningham depended on a computer screen for online classes. When she graduated from Samford in May 2021, her video skills were needed for something she never anticipated: virtual interviews on national television.
As Cunningham walked across the stage to receive her bachelor’s degree in Liberal Studies, then Samford President Andrew Westmoreland took her by the hand and the ceremonies came to a standstill as he noted Cunningham was graduating at age “78 years young.” The audience gave a standing ovation and word soon spread of her accomplishment. She began receiving phone calls and letters from strangers who said she inspired them.
On May 28, 2021, Cunningham appeared on NBC’s “Today” show during a live segment with Hoda Kotb and Jenna Bush Hager. They sent her a laptop computer and announced that Samford would pay tuition and fees for Cunningham to pursue a master’s degree. Kotb told her that Samford had established the Vivian Cunningham Leadership Scholarship to help other students who exhibit leadership, determination and perseverance.
“I was surprised,” Cunningham said of the scholarship. “I couldn’t believe it.”
She soon appeared on “Good Morning America” and news broadcasts nationwide, as well as in newspapers and magazines, such as Samford’s Seasons biannual publication.
“So many different people called wanting interviews, I can’t even recall who they all were,” Cunningham said. “I was shocked myself when I went viral.”
Cunningham has since turned 79, enrolled in the Studies of Law master’s degree program at Samford, made a B in her first class and taken another temporary hiatus from higher education. She is spending time with family, including her 96-year-old mother, three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Her daughter lives in Virginia and is a project manager for the federal government, working on a Ph.D. Her son has followed in Vivian’s footsteps, working at Alabama Power Corporate Headquarters as a Facilities control operator.
Racial injustice still occurs in Alabama and America, but Cunningham has watched through the years as barriers to equality for Blacks have fallen, one after another.
“I have seen changes happen, eventually,” she said. “Oh, it is altogether different now than then.”