Alice Dunnigan: First Black Woman Reporter to Cover White House
Alice Dunnigan broke new ground by becoming one of the first black White House correspondents; she was the first to travel with a U.S. president (but she had to pay her own way); and she was also first to have credentials to be in the House and Senate press galleries as well as the Supreme Court.
She became a voting member of the White House Newswomen’s Association and was voted into the Women’s National Press Club.
None of these accomplishments came easily. Born in Russellville, Kentucky, in 1906 to a father who was a sharecropper and a mother who took in laundry to help support the family, Alice rose to achieve her goal—becoming a reporter so that news of African Americans was written about.
Frederick Douglass once said: “Do not judge me by the heights to which I have risen, but by depths from which I have come.”
Like all African American children, Alice Allison Dunnigan (1906-1983) had limited opportunities for education. Russellville’s school system offered ten years of schooling for black children, but most of these children were expected to work in the fields so the schools were open for only 6-7 months each year. Dunnigan took advantage of all that was offered.
When Dunnigan saw local newspapers, she noted there was no coverage of her community. She started submitting one-line items about local people to the Owensboro Enterprise, the nearest African American newspaper in the area. (Owensboro was about 2 hours north of Russellville.) She was only 13 when these stories were accepted.
College a Financial Struggle
After graduating from Knob City High School, she hoped to attend college so she could teach. At that time, black women had few options. If they weren’t able to gain educational credits to teach, then they were left to earn money by keeping house for white families.
Her parents initially said they simply couldn’t afford additional education for Alice. Then a Sunday School teacher who knew the family talked to them about how smart and capable Alice was. The family re-considered. If Alice could work and go to college at the same time, maybe they could work it out.
She was accepted at Kentucky Normal and Industrial Institute in Frankfort (now Kentucky State University). On campus, Alice got a job waiting tables in the cafeteria. This cut school costs by half, so the family was able to pay the remainder.
Dunnigan Suffered from Overwork
But by late in the spring semester, Alice became ill from the combined burden of academics and cafeteria work. She finished the semester but was not strong enough to continue to work, so the family could no longer afford it.
Dunnigan was disheartened but not defeated. She excelled in her classwork during the first year of the program, so she met with the administrators. Based on her superior record, the school granted her a teaching certificate that permitted her to teach children in the lower grades.
Returned to Russellville
She returned to Russellville with no job prospects, but she became a last-minute hire for a job in the county school system. The building where she would teach was ramshackle and in need of repairs. She and some of the parents teamed up to paint the rooms, fix the pipes, and do what they could to make it more welcoming for the students. For the next eight years. (1924-1932), she taught there. Over time, her school was recognized as a place where students excelled.
Black teachers were poorly paid, so extra employment during the summer months was vital. Dunnigan milked cows at a dairy for four hours every morning, and one day each week she cleaned the house of a white family in Russellville. She also took in laundry.
She married a tobacco farmer named Walter Dickerson in 1925, but ultimately, the marriage did not work out. They divorced in 1930. She remained in her teaching position for the Todd County School System in Russellville and also took courses in journalism at Tennessee A & I University. She eventually earned enough credits that her teaching certificate qualified her for teaching any grade.
When Charles Dunnigan, a friend from the old neighborhood, returned to Russellville, and the two had a long courtship. She eventually agreed to marry him, but almost immediately there were complications. Charles received a job offer that took him out of the community, and they found it difficult to patch together a long-distance married life.
They had one son together, Robert William Dunnigan (1932-2016). With Charles living elsewhere and Alice working long hours, Alice’s parents stepped in to raise the boy. After Alice left the area, she sent money home for him regularly, and eventually she put him through college.
War Calls for More Workers
In 1942, the government put out a call for typists in Washington. Dunnigan learned to type in high school so she applied and received a job offer by mail. The pay was better than her teaching position, so she packed up and left for Washington. The administrator who greeted her was surprised when a black woman showed up with a government letter offering her a job, but they needed the help. They found a place for her without delay.
As she came to understand more about the government, she contacted Claude Barnett, publisher of the Associated Negro Press. The ANP was a newspaper syndication service that provided national news for about 110 black newspapers across the country. Her pay for these articles was poor—about a half-cent per word—and less than male reporters received, but she appreciated the experience and the extra money helped out.
War Winds Down
In 1945, Dunnigan wrote full-time for the ANP. Publisher Claude Barnett named her Washington Bureau Chief on an “experimental basis,” because he said he still wasn’t sure a woman could do the work “as well as a man.” He also kept her on the same piecemeal payment rate she received as a freelancer.
During this time, she also took some night courses at Howard University in statistics and economics—two subjects she felt would provide good background for her work.
Gaining Press Passes for Access
Alice Dunnigan had a press job, but initially, she lacked access to the people on whom she was to report. When she applied for government press passes, she was told that only reporters for daily newspapers were eligible; ANP’s newspapers were all weeklies. Dunnigan pressed ahead, making her arguments. Finally, six months later, she received a press pass to cover Congress. Alice Dunnigan was the first African American reporter to have this access.
She also fought for entry into the White House press pool. A reporter for The Atlanta Daily World and the National Negro Press Association, Harry S. McAplin broke the color line of the White House press corps in 1944. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was in office at that time. In 1948, Dunnigan and one other reporter joined McAlpin in the White House Press Corps, giving three African Americans access to Harry Truman’s White House.
By this time, Dunnigan was determined to get more money. She approached Barnett who increased her to $25 per week. It was still less than what male reporters earned but more than she was making. He also gave her permission to freelance.
Whistle Stop Campaign
When Harry Truman’s staff planned for him a “nonpolitical” Whistle Stop Campaign across the country, Dunnigan wanted to go. She contacted Truman’s press person and was told she was welcome. He added: “We estimate the trip will cost each reporter around a thousand dollars.”
Dunnigan was dumbfounded that reporters were expected to pay for train travel to accompany the president, but she said nothing and accepted. When she informed Barnett, he said she could have the time to go on the trip, but he added that the ANP couldn’t pay for it. There would be press releases issued from each stop that would provide enough for most of his subscribing newspapers. Barnett also mentioned that he doubted that a woman could get stories from the road.
Alice Dunnigan had about $250 in savings but needed to send money home each month for the care of her son. She also had her own expenses to cover. In considering organizations that might help her with trip costs, she thought of her sorority.
Sorority representatives said they could present her with a corsage at the send-off, but could not donate anything substantial. Alice replied that she either needed cash or clothes but thanked them for their honesty. To their credit, the sorority purchased a lovely tailored blouse, which proved very useful throughout the trip.
After finding no organization to help her with funds, Alice ran into a friend with good bank credit who said he would personally recommend her to his bank. This permitted Alice to borrow the money and make the trip.
Covering the Story for the ANP
Claude Barnett made it clear that her stories needed to present the African American side of the story. Dunnigan found this challenging as sometimes the only news relating to African Americans was that they did not turn out at many of the stops. But Alice Dunnigan faithfully got off the train at each stop and looked for stories. There were usually service workers at the train station, and she interviewed them about their reaction to the president.
First News Break for Dunnigan
The first big news break for the black reporters on the trip came around midnight at an unscheduled stop in Missoula, Montana, explained Dunnigan in her autobiography. The president and most reporters had gone to bed since no other stops were planned that night, but as the train pulled into Missoula, a college town, many students were on the platform awaiting Truman’s arrival.
Truman did not like to disappoint. When his staff told him people were waiting, Truman put on his bathrobe and slippers and stepped out from the train car. One of the students asked about civil rights.
Truman responded directly: “I’ll say that civil rights is as old as the Constitution of the United States and as new as the Democratic platform of 1944.” He intimated it would be part of the 1948 platform, too.
Dunnigan’s headline read: “Pajama-Clad President Defends Civil Rights at Midnight.”
Few others had the story.
Civil Rights Actions Started in 1940s
While Americans generally associate the civil rights movement and lunch-counter sit-ins with the 1960s, those demonstrations actually began in the 1940s. Alice Dunnigan was there to cover them.
In 1947 a White Tower hamburger stand (a fast-food chain that competed with White Castle) in D.C. on 14th St. N.W. was the site of a sit-in by black high school students who insisted they should be served.
This was followed by an effort to break down the segregation that existed at the Greyhound terminal’s restaurant in Washington. An integrated group arrived and occupied all the tables, refusing to move until the “Negroes” were served.
During this time, Alice Dunnigan was reporting on the need for the Fair Employment Act. President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 to prohibit racial discrimination for jobs in the defense industry when workers were needed during the war.
Seven years later, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981(July 1947) abolishing discrimination “on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin” in the United States Armed Forces. The executive order eventually led to the end of segregation in the services. These, in turn, led to the creation of a Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity.
But it wasn’t until 1964 that the Civil Rights Act was passed.
Between supporting herself and sending money home for her son, she lived paycheck-to-paycheck. The ANP headquarters was located in Chicago, so checks were mailed from there on Fridays. Dunnigan’s check did not arrive in D.C. until early the next week, so she often had no money for food for the weekend.
Her most valuable possession was an inexpensive watch. She found a pawn dealer who would give her $5 for it, so many Fridays found her going to the pawn shop on 7th Street. This gave her meal money. When her check arrived the next week, she would return to pick up her watch.
During the Truman administration, Alice Dunnigan was met with respect. Bess Truman sent extra flowers given her on the Whistle Stop Campaign to Alice’s cabin for her to enjoy. The president himself stopped by to check on her after a press incident when she was barred from accompanying the other reporters.
But President Dwight Eisenhower did not like surprises. At his first press conference, Dunnigan asked a question about civil rights. Eisenhower answered the question circuitously, but he told his spokesperson that in the future Dunnigan’s questions needed to be submitted in advance.
No other reporter had that requirement so she refused.
In 1953, she was barred from attending a speech given by President Eisenhower at a whites-only theater. And at Ohio Senator Robert Taft’s funeral later that year, she was forced to sit in the “servant” section.
Change in Administration
When President John F. Kennedy took office, Jet magazine noted that he called upon Alice Dunnigan at the first-ever televised news conference. The headline: “Kennedy In, Negro Reporter Gets First Answer in Two Years.”
During those years, Dunnigan covered the resistance to integrate schools on military bases and the desegregation of many public places. The best-known case Dunnigan wrote about concerned a case brought against Thompson’s Cafeteria in 1950 by a group led by Mary Church Terrell. The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court.
Job Offer from Johnson
Alice Dunnigan was offered a job with the campaign staff of Lyndon B. Johnson when he was hoping to be the 1960 presidential nominee. When the candidate became John F. Kennedy, Dunnigan went back to reporting for a time. Soon after taking office, President Kennedy appointed her to the President’s Committee on Equal Opportunity.
When Johnson became president after the death of John F. Kennedy, she returned to work in his Administration. In the mid-1960s, she moved over to the Department of Labor where she worked as an information specialist. In 1967, she became an associate editor with the President’s Commission on Youth Opportunity.
In 1970, she retired from government service and took time to write her autobiography, A Black Woman’s Experience: From Schoolhouse to White House, published in 1974. The original book was 700+ pages long.
Journalist and attorney Carol McCabe Booker took it upon herself to condense manuscript to shorten the book by focusing primarily on Dunnigan’s journalism career. Today that book is available as Alone Atop the Hill by Alice Dunnigan as edited by Carol McCabe Booker.
Over the course of her career, Alice Allison Dunnigan won over 50 journalism awards. In 1982, she was inducted into the Kentucky Hall of Fame, and in 1985, she was admitted into the Black Journalist Hall of Fame.
“Race and sex were twin strikes against me. I’m not sure which was the hardest to break down.”
Recognition for Alice Dunnigan
Just a few years ago, Alice Dunnigan’s accomplishments came to light again after many years when her story was not told. A local businessman in Russellville felt strongly that she should be recognized. He donated money for a memorial and formed a committee to decide how she would best be remembered.
Eventually the concept of a memorial statue was decided upon, and sculptor Amanda Matthews was given a 1947 photo of Alice Dunnigan on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. She is holding a copy of The Washington Post.
In 2018, the memorial was unveiled at Washington’s Newseum. (The museum closed permanently at the end of 2019.) The statue was moved to its permanent home in Russellville, outside the West Kentucky African American Heritage Association.
At the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri, a panel discussion was held to recognize Alice Allison Dunnigan and the reason for her memorial. Historian Dr. Nancy Dawson, granddaughter Astoria Dunnigan Brandon, and sculptor Amanda Matthews discussed Dunnigan’s life and achievements as well as the process of creating a memorial to honor her. The panel was recorded by C-Span and can be viewed here.
During the various celebrations, her grandson Kevin Dunnigan was interviewed. He said that he once asked her if she was ever afraid when stepping in to cover stories involving integration.
Dunnigan responded: “Fear is the underside of courage. The deeper your fear, the stronger your courage.”
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