Black Pioneers: Charles Franklin Cunningham Sr.

Charles Franklin Cunningham
Photo courtesy of The Saline Courier.

On this date in 1974, the Arkansas Gazette announced Charles Franklin Cunningham Sr. had been elected president of the Arkansas Community Action Agency Association. Cunningham was instrumental in the creation and leadership of the Central Arkansas Development Council and served as its executive director for 37 years, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. In 1981, he became the first African American mayor of Benton.

Charles F. Cunningham was born on Jan. 17, 1933, in South Pittsburg in Marion County, Tenn. to Floyd S. Cunningham and Georgia Anna Cunningham. In 1952, he married Josie M. Slaughter. Following service in the U.S. Army, Cunningham earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and chemistry from Tennessee State University. In 1959, Charles and Josie Cunningham began teaching at Benton’s predominantly Black Ralph Bunche High School. The Cunninghams, who lived in what is now Benton’s Ralph Bunche Community, had five children: Charles Jr., Richard, Alan, Angela and Joe Anne.

Ralph Bunche High School, where Cunningham and his wife taught, was closed due to integration in 1968. Charles had already left teaching by then, but his wife Josie remained until the school’s closing.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act into law Aug. 20, 1964. The Central Arkansas Development Council was formed in direct response to Johnson’s new “War on Poverty” the following year. In 1971, Cunningham became its executive director.

In 1975, Cunningham was invited by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller to participate in a panel discussion on rural transportation. In January 1981, the Benton Board of Directors voted unanimously to elect Cunningham as mayor. He had been a member of the board since its inception in 1976.  

As mayor, Cunningham presided over Benton’s change from a city-manger system to a mayor-council form of government, which cut short his term in office. Cunningham remained director of CADC until 2003, when he stepped down to become alderman for Benton’s Ward 2. 

Josie Cunningham died in 2005. Charles Cunningham died on April 18, 2017 at his home in Benton. At the time, he was still serving as alderman in Ward 2. He was a lifelong member of Johnson Street Church of Christ and served as a church elder. He is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Ralph Bunche Community.

On Nov. 10, 2017, the Ralph Bunche Park pavilion was dedicated in Benton in his honor. The dedication ceremony concluded with the unveiling of a plaque reading “In Memory of Alderman Cunningham.”