Wil and his wife Bev live around the corner from me in an sedate residential neighborhood in downtown Jackson, Mississippi. More than anyone I’ve ever known, Wil embodies the American Dream of work rewarded and a life well-lived. Here is his story for the world; it matters, yes it does.
I was born September 26, 1939, in a shotgun house on Farish Street in the heart of the black community. The neighborhood had four barbers, three restaurants, and two fast food restaurants for hamburgers, pig ears, smoked sausage, and sandwiches. We had our own grocery store, a cleaner, a shoe repair shop, a laundry, an ice cream parlor, and movie houses on Farish and Amite. We also had two funeral parlors, a bike shop, and a bus company that brought people from the country to sell their produce. Three doors from my house was a pool hall and a cab stand, and all my friends lived within a few blocks.
My aunt always told me I should try to make some money on my own, so I got a job at a beauty parlor on Capitol Street. It was owned by a guy named Baldwin, one of the biggest jerks who ever lived. He said he’d give me six dollars a week to shine shoes, but I couldn’t take tips. I was supposed to make six dollars a week, but he would give me five one week and four the next.
It went on like that for a while until I finally got tired of it and told my aunt. She said, “We’re going to go down and get your money.” She put her pistol in her purse, and we went to the beauty parlor. “Mr. Baldwin,” said my aunt, “you owe this boy six dollars, and you need to pay him.” Baldwin said, “Well, I’m not going to give him anything. He’s fired.” My aunt reached into her purse and pulled out her pistol, walked around the chair where he was standing and said, “You need to pay him his money.” And he did.
Our house at 518 Farish backed up on an alley across from Rodger’s Tailor Shop. Up the alley lived a lady bootlegger named Cara Lee, whose daughter was a whore. All kinds of trouble went on up there on Friday and Saturday nights, and, because my bed was under a window, I heard things I hoped I’d never hear again. Sometimes the police raided Cara Lee’s place, and one night a policeman shot our little cocker spaniel just because he was barking. At that, my aunt came out of the house with a Winchester rifle and told the policeman she might blow his brains out. A long, tense moment passed, and I was sure someone was going to get shot, but finally another officer came over and said, “Please ma’am, Lord to God, he was wrong to shoot your dog, and I’m sorry.” The policeman apologized, and my aunt huffed back into the house.
After all that, my aunt decided it was time for me to get back with my mother. She said, “Son, you know I love you more than life, but if you stay here, either I’m going to be killed or you are. I think it’s time for you to go be with your parents.” Correspondence went back and forth, and in the summer of 1954, I left Jackson and went to Madison, Wisconsin, where my mother and stepfather rented a house in South Madison. The neighborhood was called “The Bush” and was made up entirely of blacks and Italians. I was surprised because every one got along fine.
My new school was Edgewood Sacred Heart Academy, where I was the sixth black among five hundred students. I didn’t do well in school; it was hard for me to concentrate because of the trouble I had at home. My stepfather was an alcoholic, and he couldn’t stand to see my mother and I growing close.
In 1958, I graduated from Edgewood with a C-minus average. Luckily, I was a good athlete and got an offer from Bishop College in Marshall, Texas. I played ball for them over a few semesters, when, out of the blue, my real father sent me a train ticket to come out to Los Angeles. I liked being with my father and planned to go to L.A. City College in the fall, but my grandmother died, and my mother insisted I come back to Farish Street for the funeral. My father begged me not to go, but I had to. I never saw my father again.
By 1961, I was living in Madison again. One snowy day, I was walking down Park Boulevard when two of my buddies and a woman drove by in a Volkswagen bug. I asked, “Where are you going?” They said, “We’re going to New York City.” I said, “Hold on, drive by the house, let me pick up some stuff!” That’s how I got to New York.
I’ll never forget standing on 6th Avenue thinking, “I’m in New York! I’m in the Village!” I moved into a little flea-bag hotel on 43rd Street and found a part-time job right around the corner. Everything was fine until I started going out with a woman who worked in the same place. It wasn’t long before our relationship got to a point where I felt trapped. I wanted to be free, but didn’t know what to do.
One morning, I was looking at the travel section of The New York Times when something caught my eye: a Yugoslavian freighter was due to sail out of Brooklyn for Tangier and Morocco, and you could get passage for $141. As soon as I saw that notice, I remembered the night back in L.A. when my father shook me awake. I said, “What’s the matter?” He said, “Dorothy’s in the kitchen.” I said, “So what?” He said, “She’s boiling water to make tea, and she don’t drink tea. Get dressed–we’re going to your sister’s.”
That was it. If you want to get free, all you have to do is leave. A few days later, I was on that Yugoslavian freighter bound for the Straits of Gibraltar.
The voyage lasted nine days. I had my own room, the food was excellent, and I got so drunk off slivovitz, I’ll never drink another drop of it. In Tangier, I rented a room for seventy-five cents a day in a hotel near the Casbah. A few days later, I went to an American bar and was introduced to Mark Gilbey, who owned Gilbey’s Gin. We talked and had some drinks, and after a while, he invited me to a Christmas party. He had a fabulous place overlooking the Atlantic Ocean with a red room, a blue room, and so on.
I stayed in Morocco nine months, in Tangier, Affairs, Rabat, Casablanca, Marrakesh, and Showan. When I finally decided to leave, I crossed the Mediterranean to Spain. I loved the Spanish people, but when I got into France, I ran into problems. I didn’t speak French, and the natives were nasty about it. From Nice, I took a train into Rome. I was sitting on the Spanish Steps when a guy came up to me and said, “My name is Wilpert Bradley, I’m from Chicago, and I’m gay.” I shook his hand and said, “My name is Wil Cunningham, I’m from New York, and I’m straight.” He laughed and said, “Wil, you’re the first American I’ve met who didn’t take offense at that.” I said, “I’m travelling and living my life. Ain’t no problem.”
Bradley had come over with the “Cleopatra” film company. He had a big place over on Via Seccalle and let me a room in the back. That’s where I stayed for a year and a half.
I did a little modeling, and I was in some spaghetti Westerns, made up as a Mexican bandito. I got fifty dollars a day to stand around and wait for them to shoot me and fall off the horse. It was fun–fifty dollars a day for doing nothing. When I’d made a little money, I’d go up in the Scandinavian countries. I just travelled, met people, travelling was cheap, I could get on the train and be in Paris in just a few hours. But Rome was my home. I could go away for four or five days and come back, and I had a place to stay.
Some friends were showing my Portfolio around to movie companies in Rome when my mother called with bad news. My step father was in the hospital with cirrhosis of the liver, and the doctors feared he would not make it. I thought it was time I should go home for a while–I could get back to Europe after the crisis was over. As it turned out, it would be years before I returned.
When I got back to New York, I stayed with a friend from UW and waited for instructions from mama. The friend was from New Rochelle, New York; that week-end, there was a party up there, and he asked me if I would like to go. That was one of the best things that ever happened to me, for it was at that party I met my wife-to-be. We had a great time together, and we fell in love.
Her father gave us good advice: “Get out of the city,” he told us. “Get out of New York. You’ll never make it there.” My stepfather was in a Madison hospital, and my mother was having a hard time. I talked it over with Beverly, and she said, “Let’s do it. Let’s go to Wisconsin.”
I fought my demons and finally reconciled with my stepfather. As for Bev, my mother thought of her as a daughter until the day mama died. Eventually, Bev and I found jobs, and in no time, we had our own place. That September, we went back to New York and got married.
I attended community college to see if I could get my grade average high enough that a university would accept me. Meanwhile, I got a job at a clothing store called “No Hassle.” The guy liked me a lot because I was very fashion-oriented, I had just come back from Rome, and I knew a lot about clothes and shoes. What I really wanted, though, was to open my own business.
After a year at the community college, I qualified to enroll at the University of Wisconsin, but the desire to open my own business was too strong, and I only stayed one semester. I reached out to a friend of mine, Lamont Jones from Mobile, Alabama, who had just gotten his MBA, and we wrote up a business plan for a woman’s shoe store. He would handle the money, and I would be the buyer, something my time at “No Hassle” had prepared me for.
The problem was, Lamont and I had just two thousand dollars apiece and little credit. The Small Business Administration loaned us nine thousand, and in 1969, we finally opened our shoe store–“Compared To What”–on State Street in Madison, about three blocks from the university campus. Then we had another problem: we simply couldn’t get a credit line with any of the suppliers. When they sent us the shoes, we had to send them the money. We were selling shoes like mad, but we didn’t have a cash flow.
After five years, Lamont and I realized we had a losing proposition. We just couldn’t get ahead, and we still owed Small Business nine thousand dollars. We went down there to pay them off, and the guy said, “We can’t take cash.” I said, “You’re going to take cash today, and I want a receipt.” I counted out nine one-hundred-dollar bills, then Lamont and I split up the remainder: two thousand dollars each, same as we started with.
I decided I’d have to set aside my father-in-law’s advice and return to New York. I had contacts among shoe buyers and suppliers, and through them, I met the general manager of Thayer-McNeil, a division of Florsheim Shoes, in Manhattan. He made me manager of a store at 73rd Street and 3rd Avenue. I had been at Thayer-McNeil/Florsheim a year when a guy told me about a job with Converse. At that time, Converse had an office on the eighty-first floor of the Empire State Building. As soon as I walked in the door, the general manager said, “You’re hired. I like the way you walked in.” (I always dressed well as a salesman.) When the paperwork was finished, I was told my territory would be Brooklyn, a part of New York I knew nothing about.
They gave me a company car with a trunk-load of samples. Next day, the valet parked it in the garage while I went up to the eighty-first floor to check with the general manager. When I got to the car again, I drove across the Brooklyn Bridge and down Flatbush Avenue to my accounts. My first stop was a store that sold Converse; I went in and gave the manager my card. Luckily, business was slow, and the manager was glad to have someone to talk to. I went out to the car to get my samples from the trunk . . . and they were gone! I drove straight back to Manhattan, had the valet park my car, went up eighty-one stories, and said to the general manager, “Irving! I went to a store on Flatbush Avenue, went in to see the manager, came out to get my samples–and they were gone!” Irving closed his eyes for a moment, then said, “Earlier this morning, you parked in the garage downstairs, right?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Next time, when you give the valet your keys, take the trunk key off the ring.” That was my first lesson on the new job.
Irving Cole taught me a lot when I was at Converse. My first time out with him, for example, he taught me to listen. We went into a store in Brooklyn, and before I could unpack my bags, the store manager started complaining about how hard it was to work with our company. He went on for a long time, using language that made me uncomfortable. Meanwhile, Irving never said a word, just let the guy vent. Finally, when the manager calmed down a little, Irving said “Let me apologize for the problem you have getting this shoe in your store.” Then he took out a notepad and asked what colors and sizes the guy needed, and how soon he would need them. When he had the information, he went to the store phone, called our customer service, and arranged for everything to be shipped next day.
After we left the store, Irving asked, “What were you thinking in there?” I told him the guy scared me, and if I’d been by myself, I probably would have walked out. “You got to listen,” Irving said. “The whole time we were in there, the guy never once said he didn’t want our product–he was mad because he couldn’t get it when he needed it. The secret to making a sale like that is not to overreact, but listen to what the guy really needs and see that he gets it. The most important thing you can do is listen.”
In November, 1975, I moved to the sporting goods division, which is where I should have been in the first place. My territory was all five boroughs of New York City. It was a ten-million-dollar account, and I made that and above. In addition, I was given the responsibility of signing pro athletes for Converse; I had the Jets, the Giants, the Knicks, the Jets, and the Yankees (I would go to spring training with the Yankees and make sure they had everything they needed.) Famous guys like Reggie Jackson, Larry Bird, Bernard King, and Larry Johnson would call me at home. Yogi Berra called once, and Spring, my youngest daughter, said, “Yogi the Bear is on the phone!”
I worked that job for twenty-nine years, trying to make a difference. Then, in 2000, I made up my mind that Converse was going nowhere. New owners were taking over, and they were looking to flip the company to the highest bidder. I knew I was not part of their plan, so I took my retirement. It was all right with Bev; she knew it was time.
After my stepfather died in 1996, my mother went home to Jackson, and I talked to Bev about moving down there to look after her. Bev was all for it; she loved mama and was like a daughter to her. We owned five acres in Madison County, and I had the dream of building a big house where all of us could live. In 2001, we moved south, back to the town I started out in. Before long, I realized my dream of building a big house in the country was not going to happen. First, every contractor we spoke to quoted a price way out of our range. Second, I discovered that, no matter how much two women might love each other, each wants her own place.
Bev and I ended up buying a beautiful little house on Kenwood Street in Belhaven. The neighborhood is old and peaceful, and I looked forward to reconnecting with people I’d known as a teenager. As it turned out, this was another dream that, if not lost, was deferred.
One day I brought my oldest friend to the house we had bought. When we got out of the car, I noticed he was hanging back a little, as if he were confused. “Why did you buy a house here?” he asked. “We never came over here when we were kids. Who do you know lives here?” I said, “I was told there’s only one other black owns a house in Belhaven. Now there’s two.” He had nothing to say after that. Another time, Bev and I invited about ten people over for coffee. The men were uncomfortable, and the women sat with their purses in their laps and said little or nothing. These people will always be friends of ours, and we hope that, one day, whatever discomfort they felt will be a thing of the past.
Farish Street is empty now; all the life is washed out of it, and it will never again be like it was when I was a kid. We can’t return to the past, and often it’s hard to catch up to the present, yet, after eighty years, I find myself looking down the road to bridges I’d like to cross. All I can say now is what I said to Wilpert Bradley on the Spanish Steps so many years ago: “I’m travelling and living my life. Ain’t no problem.”