Proud Daughter Reflects on Whitney Young

A PBS documentary on civil rights icon Whitney Young Jr. that capped Black History Month at Bronx Community College told how as National Urban League leader he championed employment equality by appealing directly to corporate and government leaders — and several U.S. presidents.

Marcia Young Cantarella

Marcia Young Cantarella holds a photo of herself with her father taken at her 1968 graduation from Bryn Mawr College, where he was the commencement speaker.

But to Marcia Young Cantarella — who has been associated with Hunter College for many years, formerly as an associate provost, and now as an adviser and consultant to the college’s  Black Male Initiative Program — Young was first and foremost her dad.

“In the early years of the Movement in the 1950s in Atlanta I was not old enough to really understand what was going on, though we took part in boycotts and I did understand why those took place,” Cantarella recalled in an interview with CUNY Matters. “I did not see firsthand his work at that time. During the 1960s I was in my teens and was very involved at that stage,” said Cantarella.

Carrying on a family tradition of concern for education and economic equity, in addition to her Hunter positions Cantarella has been a senior administrator at New York University, where she earned master’s and doctorate degrees in American Studies with a focus on American business; she also has taught, and been a dean, at Princeton.

As head of Cantarella Consulting, she applies her skills and background to challenges including student access, diversity, and success in higher education.  She is the author of I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide. Cantarella also speaks to student groups and blogs on the Huffington Post about issues of student success in college.

She recalls a father who took her to the library and on Sundays would make waffles. “He made a point of making sure I had everything I needed. I felt very valued.”

The family moved to Atlanta in the 1950s, when Young became dean of the Atlanta University School of Social Work. They lived in a segregated “but very affluent” community, Cantarella recounted, and she continued to spend quality time with her father.

“Daddy enjoyed sports. He would take me to college football for me to see the marching bands,” she said. “He liked jazz. I remember Nina Simone coming to our house, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, and Harry Belafonte.”

Cantarella became aware of her father’s commitment to the civil rights struggle “as things began to heat up and the sit-ins started. Young’s students were among those demonstrating, and he had to be bailing out students and not be home for dinner.

The family moved to Cambridge, Mass., when Young spent a semester at Harvard University. “Daddy was being groomed to take over the leadership of the Urban League,” Cantarella said. “I was engaged in the issues Daddy was dealing with and he took me to events.”

Young gave her the freedom to express her own opinions and demonstrated that he respected them.

“I remember as a teenager we were arguing about something. He had one point of view and I had another one,” Cantarella said. “He had the Urban League Research staff find research to prove his point, which meant he’d taken my point of view very seriously.”

As a college student, she opposed the Vietnam War. Her father introduced her to McGeorge Bundy, a top adviser to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson on the war, then he stepped aside “so I could state my point of view to McGeorge Bundy,” Cantarella recalled.

She soon began to realize the dangers Young faced.

“After the John F. Kennedy assassination we had Secret Service protection for a few months,” Cantarella said. “Daddy had a driver and a bodyguard. That was scary. When you had seen Medgar Evers shot we knew not to have the front light on so he wouldn’t be silhouetted in the door.”

She wasn’t allowed to go to the March on Washington and was told “it was a security question,” she said.

But Young gave her an opportunity to be involved in policy-making even as a teenager. “Once, at an Urban League conference, I went to my father and noted that I didn’t see any young people in leadership roles only ‘old people’ in their 40s; what would they know about the needs of young people?” She was 16. Cantarella and a friend challenged Young and he invited them to make a presentation to the Urban League’s board.

“Eventually the board made a stipulation there’d be two board members under 30 permanently because of the young people in the movement,” Cantarella said. “At one point my son, Mark, was one.” Children of board members founded an Urban League Youth organization.

Commenting on her father’s power broker status in the movement, Cantarella noted that other civil rights icons — Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins, James Farmer and Stokely Carmichael — were part of it, but each had a different role.

“What Daddy did was balance them,” she said. “He made the private sector feel at ease that he was somebody rational …. I had the privilege of meeting many people through him: Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey. I interned for Robert Kennedy in Washington.”

Cantarella enrolled at Bryn Mawr College and she and her father kept in touch. “I’d come home for holidays,” she said. “He would write to me when he traveled.” Her Bryn Mawr Class of 1968 invited him to be the graduation speaker.

“He was traditional with expectations: I should get my college degree, ultimately get married” — which she did, in 1980, to professional colleague Francesco Cantarella.

Whitney Young was not to be there, however. On March 11, 1971, Young suffered a heart attack and drowned while swimming with friends in Lagos, Nigeria.

Her father’s major influence on her, Cantarella said, was exposure to the corporate world and leadership. She has written, consulted and done training on leadership, entrepreneurship, work and family issues for various corporations.

“My work now focuses on helping students understand the relationship between their education and the world of work,” said Cantarella. “I’m my father’s daughter.”