Essie Cynthia Jenkins

Cynthia Jenkins

Hundreds mourn Cynthia Jenkins, 77

By Betsy Scheinbart

Hundreds of people filed into the Springfield Gardens United Methodist Church Monday to pay their last respects to former state Assemblywoman Cynthia Jenkins, a librarian, community activist and the first black woman elected to public office in southern Queens.

Jenkins died at North Shore Hospital on Long Island Oct. 31 after a long illness. She was 77.

She had remained politically active right up until her death last week, running for City Councilman Archie Spigner’s (D-St. Albans) seat on the Independence line. She remained on the ballot in Tuesday’s election.

Her friends and family remembered her Monday as a strong woman who always spoke her mind.

“She had a way of challenging you,” the Rev. Joseph Morrison said at the homegoing service. “When you had a verbal encounter with her, you were never the same.”

Born in Nashville, Tenn. and raised in Louisville, Ky., Jenkins spent more than four decades living and working in southeast Queens. She was to be buried in Louisville, Ky.

At the service Monday, her husband Joseph spoke briefly of the day he first met her at a military dance and of the many years he spent with her.

“I am a self-employed businessman, a former military man, a trained pilot, a poet...” Joseph Jenkins said. “I have had an exciting life, but the most exciting day of my life was the day Essie Cynthia Burnley Jenkins became my wife.”

Her homegoing service was attended by dozens of community leaders, southeast Queens activists, elected officials and current candidates for the City Council, who took time out from last-minute campaign stops on the day before the election.

“She’s been an inspiration for me,” said Allan Jennings, who is running for a council seat in District 28.

Before spending 12 years in the Assembly representing Jamaica, St. Albans, Springfield Gardens and Rosedale, Jenkins served southeast Queens as a librarian, community activist and advocate for civil rights.

Ernestine Washington met Jenkins in 1968 when both women were working in the Queen Public Library system.

“I heard of this lady with the big mouth, and I wanted to meet her,” Washington quipped.

The two found a common ground in their disdain for the way blacks were subjected to a “glass ceiling” in the public library system. In 1969 they formed the Black Librarians Caucus.

That same year Jenkins also founded the Social Concern Committee of Springfield Gardens Inc., an educational action program that grew over the years and gave rise to several other agencies that now employ more than 2,000 people annually.

“She was one of the strongest voices for change in this community in all arenas,” said Ineze Patterson, executive director of Employment Works!!! in Jamaica, who attended the funeral.

Jenkins was known in Albany as an advocate for libraries, books and literacy, said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan).

“Throughout her career, Cynthia Jenkins’ advocacy for these issues was nonpareil,” Silver said in a press statement. “Cynthia Jenkins will surely be missed by her former colleagues in the Assembly, the people of Queens and the people of New York state.”

City Councilwoman Helen Marshall (D-East Elmhurst), whose time in the Assembly overlapped with Jenkins’ tenure, agreed that Jenkins will be missed.

“She was feisty, but she fought for what she believed in,” Marshall said while campaigning for borough president in Forest Hills Friday.

Leroy Comrie, who won the election Tuesday to replace Spigner on the Council, said he knew Jenkins had been fighting illness, and was saddened by her death.

“Cynthia and I always got along,” Comrie said before the funeral Monday. “She always treated me fairly, even when she was mad at me on an issue.”

Comrie said he was going to miss Jenkins, who “had a special fire that will be missed in the community.”

Jenkins’ most recent triumph as a community activist occurred in 1999 and 2000, when she led a group of Springfield Gardens residents to prevent the construction of a 14-screen movie theater on Merrick Boulevard. A Home Depot opened at the site this past summer.

Jenkins is survived by her husband, Joseph Jenkins; her son, the Rev. Joseph Jenkins, Jr.; her daughter-in-law Carolyn Wiggins-Jenkins and a large extended family.

Times Ledger Newspaper 2001