When David Cummings was a young child in Montclair, he said, his mother left the house at 5:30 a.m. every day — early enough to get in a few hours of overtime at the now-closed Deluxe Corporation check printer in West Caldwell. His father left the house early to get assignments as a construction worker from a local labor hall.

They depended on any opportunity to provide for their five children, Cummings, now Montclair’s Fourth-Ward councilman, said. He was the youngest of the group.

As a child, Cummings saw his older siblings working through a youth employment program run by the Montclair Neighborhood Development Corporation, with funding support from Essex County. The MNDC took him and others on trips to baseball games and the beach. 

That support, that recreation, that mentorship “made my parents’ money go a lot further than it normally would,” Cummings said.

He told the story as one of four Essex County honorees for African American History Month, when the Board of Commissioners on Feb. 18 celebrated Cummings along with HP INC (a company that provides advice on navigating the educational system) CEO and owner Harry Paden of Irvington, New Jersey Institute of Social Justice President and CEO Ryan P. Haygood of Newark, and Board of Commissioners Clerk Deborah David Ford of South Orange.

David Cummings
David Cummings

Cummings’ point: The same Essex County government that honored him at a ceremony — held over a video conference and broadcast live to YouTube — had always been part of his life, and has remained critical to Montclair’s youth since. He lauded the county and the MNDC and county for the creation of the Wally Choice Community Center at Glenfield Park, where a CARES Act-funded remote learning center serves dozens of children daily in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, at no cost to families. 

“I hope there’s some 5- and 6-year-old kid who was in the shoes that I was in, who knows there’s some place that can help them,” Cummings said. “And that place would not be there without your support.”

The county commissioners also recently celebrated the MNDC’s own 50th anniversary.

Cummings, as the Fourth Ward’s councilman, represents the area of Montclair with the largest Black and brown populations. 

County Commissioner Brendan Gill, a Montclair native, remembered first becoming aware of Cummings when they were both children — Gill in the second grade, and Cummings playing basketball for Montclair High School at an Essex County Tournament finals game. He called the councilman one of his childhood heroes.

“To still be able to look up to them when you’re 45 — that’s a real credit to someone who has made a real stake, and chose to stay, and represent his own community, and make sure their needs are being met,” Gill said.

The commissioner noted Cummings’ long family history in Montclair — dating to the 1920s, with a member of every generation graduating from MHS since the 1940s. The councilman is a 1985 graduate of the school, where he’d earned accolades as an athlete. 

The councilman’s political activism started at Morehouse College in Atlanta, where as a freshman he worked alongside the Rev. Jesse Jackson on a voter registration drive, Gill recounted. Cummings’ first vote was for then-Sen. John Lewis, the civil rights movement icon who died last summer. 

The councilman spent 30 years as a sports journalist, and now owns a communications company that has clients as large as the NFL and as small as the MNDC, Gill said. It scales from “some of the most important both corporate and financial players in our country down to our local community service organizations,” he said.

He is a former member of Montclair’s school board, and has had roles with the MNDC, the township’s parks and recreation advisory committee and its civil rights commission. 

Cummings, in information provided to Montclair Local, also cited among his involvements and achievements other work, including a collaboration with Montclair Partners Foundation, Union Baptist Church, Toni’s Kitchen, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation and the Salvation Army to establish daytime and overnight respite for homeless residents, after a discussion among a subcommittee of Mayor Sean Spiller’s COVID Task Force. 

He said he’d brought four job fairs to the Wally Choice Center through his contact with Orange Councilman Weldon Montague, who works for the Department of Labor. He’s working with Montague on expungement initiatives to help those who could lose opportunities because of criminal background checks. And he’s run webinars for local businesses with representatives of the New Jersey Redevelopment Authority, providing access to its Small Business Lease Emergency Grant Program.

Cummings, speaking with Montclair Local the day after the county program, said the pandemic has shifted how efforts to celebrate community leaders are conducted — “Normally, you get to take the pictures in the hall, and meet with people, and those things aren’t available,” he said. But he hoped digital and social media would fill some of the void.

County Commissioners President Wayne L. Richardson said it was important to continue traditions like the annual awards.

"As a Black man, it is important to me that our contributions are celebrated, both large and small, because each of us are significant to the success of our communities,” Richardson said.