From Schoolhouse to the White House: Alice Dunnigan
Alice Allison Dunnigan, the daughter of a Kentucky sharecropper, dreamed of becoming a journalist. She fought through segregation and sexism and went on to become the first Black woman accredited to cover the White House. She was also the first Black woman member of the Senate and House of Representatives press galleries.
In 1947, Ms. Dunnigan became the head of the Associated Negro Press Washington Bureau, and spent 14 years writing stories printed in over 100 African-American newspapers across the country.
During her time as a reporter, she became the first African-American journalist to accompany a president – Harry S. Truman – and cover his campaign trip.
Ms. Dunnigan reported on Congressional hearings where Blacks were referred to as “niggers”, and was barred from covering a speech by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in a whites-only theater. She was also not allowed to sit with the press to cover Senator Robert A. Taft’s funeral – she had to sit in the servant’s section.
She was known for her straight-shooting reporting style. Politicians routinely avoided answering her difficult questions which often included race issues.
A call for government workers went out in 1942, and Ms. Dunnigan moved to Washington, D.C. during World War II seeking better pay. For four years, she worked as a federal government employee, and took night courses at Howard University.
In 1946, she was offered a job writing for The Chicago Defender as a Washington correspondent. It was a black-owned weekly publication that did not use the words “Negro” or “Black” in its pages. Instead, African-Americans were referred to as “the Race” and Black men and women as “Race Men and Race Women.”
Even working for a black-owned publication, she still had to prove her worth as a woman. The editor of The Defender paid her much less than her male counterparts. She obtained other writing jobs to supplement her income.
As a writer for the Associated Negro Press news service, Ms. Dunnigan sought press credentials but was denied because she wrote for a weekly newspaper; reporters covering the U.S. Capitol were required to write for daily publications. However, six months later, she was granted press clearance.
After her White House days, Dunnigan returned to writing. Her autobiography, A Black Woman’s Experience: From Schoolhouse to White House, was published in 1974.
Despite her extensive work in government, she was most proud of her work in journalism and received more than 50 journalism awards. Ms. Dunnigan died in 1983, and two years later was inducted into the Black Journalist Hall of Fame.
A life-size bronze statue will be created in her honor at the Newseum, a museum in Washington dedicated to the press and the First Amendment.
Alice Allison Dunnigan was truly a barrier-breaker for women and people of color. Her life is a story of hope to anyone who has ever doubted their ability to make it professionally through tough times.