Remembering the Life and Times of Glenn Cunningham
Occasionally, I still visit The Club. Just about everybody I once knew is gone, but the atmosphere and activities remain the same. The smoke is thick, the talk is loud, and the booze abounds. I sit and wonder where I would be had not Jesus Christ come into my life in 1954.
Now we were passing Union Street where P.S. 14 is located. This is the public school I wanted to attend when I arrived in Georgia. It was predominantly Black, but I ended up at P.S. 15 on Stegman St., which was predominantly White. I recall the principal at P.S. 15, Dr. Bannerman. She was a frail little white woman with a southern accent. She loved to talk about the “darkies” and their habits. I hated her. Today the school is a primary and middle school named after the late Whitney Young Jr., former head of the National Urban League.
P.S. 14 was later named after Flip Wilson. I was there for the naming ceremony. I was good friends with Flip's brother, Clifford, whom we called “The Fox.”
Nearing Forest Avenue was Caruso, another infamous liquor store and watering hole. Across the street was the 418 Club, a more upscale watering hole. Not far from the 418 Club was "the cut" , a known gathering place above the railroad track. On any evening reefer smoke filled the air. In addition, fiery arguments and tall tales were exchanged.
At that time, nobody paid much attention to reefers or any form of dope. The only treatment center that we knew about was in Lexington, Kentucky. A man named Sonny R. was given credit for bringing heroin—also known as "horse," "white lady," and "junk”— into the community. Before we knew it, another destroyer had taken hold of our community. Innumerable persons, old and young became hooked. Whole families were destroyed.
But nobody seemed to care—until 1948 when young white women were caught getting high with Black musicians at the famed Birdland jazz club. Then society became aware and alarmed. An outcry erupted and demanded that something be done. How many times has that happened? As long as an illness is contained in the Black community, it’s not a problem. This reflects how society esteems Black humanity.
The next block up was Ege Avenue on the corner was Marie's restaurant, where a portly Black woman was the owner and cook. I can't remember what was on the menu, but with our heads swimming from marijuana, our stomachs demanded sweets and liquids, and we would keep Marie's open late into the night making endless orders of sweet potato pie, coconut cake, milk, and sodas. We ate and laughed the hours away. One of the persons among the nocturnal crowd was Danny Walcot, the brother of Red Walcot, Red Walcot named Marshall, who had named Sluggo. He had won the reputation as being one of the biggest potheads in Jersey City.
One night he went to a church and "got saved." He went home and flushed all his reefers and tobacco down the toilet. He, like Sluggo, wanted everybody "to be saved" immediately. His conversations had one subject matter: Jesus Christ.
They nicknamed him Mr. Bible because every time you saw him, he was carrying a Bible. Months later, Danny died suddenly. We never knew why. The whole town was shocked. In his coffin, they placed a Bible in his hand. It was hard to believe he was gone.
We turned west on Orient Avenue where Glenn once lived. We went up to Bergen Avenue and turned south. Looking northward on Bergen Avenue is the Millers' library where the monthly lecture series sponsored by the TAP and the Power Within forum is held.
The procession continued past Grant Avenue where I had lived between MLK and Ocean Avenues. There on the corner of Bergen and Grant Avenue was Snyder High School. Vivid in my mind were the black and orange uniforms and the name of Covella, a White football player whose exploits were compared to Aubrey Lewis of Montclair High School, who became the first Black football player at Notre Dame University. Years later, I took some kids from my church in Brooklyn to see Lewis. We went into the wooded area around his house, and he cut some branches and made a wooden cross. It hangs in my pulpit today.
The funeral process continued on Bergen Avenue turned east on Bidwell Avenue, not far from the Greenville Hospital where Glenn died an hour after arrival, and where my brother Bob died 20 years before, amid many unanswered questions.
Then we turned south on MLK Jr. Drive to east on Warner Street, to south on Ocean Avenue to Chapel Avenue. All along the way to the Bayview cemetery people were lined up. Some of them must have been waiting for hours. Some had brought chairs and benches to sit on. I said to the ministers who were riding in the limo with me, "It is great to have VIPs attend your funeral. But it is greater to have the people show their love by lining the streets the way they have done."
We entered the cemetery winding through the narrow curvaceous streets. It was an old cemetery. The bronze casket was placed above the ground atop a grass-green carpet. The immediate family sat in chairs. The weeping now became audible. Family members buried their heads in their hands. Ms. Cunningham fell over on the shoulders of Glenn's brother.
Dr. Maize and I moved closer to the casket, and he read the familiar burial litany, concluding with "ashes to ashes, dust to dust..." As he spoke, he plucked the petals from the white rose flower I held in my hand and announced that I would do the closing prayer.
I paused to gather my composure and prayed:
"Oh God our help in ages past our hope for years to come our shelter from the stormy blast and our eternal home. We are gathered here in this hallowed place with hearts mixed with sadness and gratitude. We are sad because our loved one Glenn Cunningham, the mayor, and state senator, is no longer with us on this side of history. But we are sorry not like others who have no hope.
“We are grateful too for the time Glenn was with us, and all the good he did. ‘He put his footprints on the sands of time.’ While we place his body on the ground he will never die. His spirit will live as long as the sun shines. We are grateful that one day we shall meet again, and on that day there will be no sorrow, suffering, death, and parting of the ways. For the former things would have passed away. Till then comfort the family, inspire us all to do your will."
After the prayer, there was a pause, and the military ceremony began. When the ceremony concluded, the clergy in a line marched past the family. I had an eerie feeling as I greeted one of Glenn's brothers; he looked so much like Lowell, now deceased, with whom I used to "run". When I reached Ms. Cunningham, I bent over to embrace her. Tears were rolling down her face. She was sobbing as she thanked me. I whispered to her, "You will always be in my prayers. Stay well, stay strong. God will take care of you. Let's carry on."
A little distance away the ground was open to receive the coffin. Rev. Maize and I walked with the family to the burial ground, paused for a moment, and then returned to our cars. The reception was held at Tavern Restaurant in Lincoln Park. The place was packed. It was whosoever will, let him come.
One person present who was dear to me was Bernice Lawrence. She is the wife of the renowned, deceased evangelist John Lawrence. In 1953, and for many years thereafter, John had had a powerful influence on my religious conversion and development. Innumerable lives were changed through his ministry.
The drive back home seemed short. I lost track of time as I pondered my Jersey City days, the life and times of Glenn, the days’ events, and the cause of death. Again, I vowed to redouble my effort in urging people to take care of their health and get their physical check-ups.
As I neared home, I started humming Dion’s melancholy melody, (pardon me Dion for changing the names):
Anybody here seen my old friend Glenn?
Can you tell me where he is gone?
He freed a lot of people.
It seems the good die young.
I just looked around, and he was gone
Anybody here seen my old friend Sonny?
Anybody here seen my old friend Malcolm?
Didn't you just love the things they stood for?
They tried to find some good for you and me
So, we would be free soon
One day it's gonna be
Anybody here seen my old friend?
Can you tell me where he is gone?
I think I saw him coming over the hill
with Martin, Sonny, and Glenn
To be continued…