‘The Mother of a Movement’: First black woman White House correspondent is finally getting recognition

November 21, 2018

“I became sort of a ‘flea in the collar.’”

That line comes from “Alone atop the Hill, The Autobiography of Alice Dunnigan, Pioneer of the National Black Press.” There was a time when Dunnigan, who made history in 1947 as the first black woman to cover the White House, was ignored at White House press conferences. When that changed Jan. 25, 1961, Jet Magazine took note: “Kennedy In, Negro Reporter Gets First Answer in Two Years.” 

The Jet article explained how “…grandmother Dunnigan bobbed up and down at press conferences to get the eye of ex-President Eisenhower. She was skipped, passed over, and ignored. Even reporters noticed the snubbing and jokingly told her ‘to save her strength.’ She was regarded as an agitator by conservative newsmen.” 

Born in 1906 in rural Kentucky, Dunnigan endured a slew of insults and indignities, like many black people of her era. Dunnigan, who died in 1983, now stands tall in Washington, D.C. On display for through mid-December at the Newseum, her statue is a wonderful testament to the idea that comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable is the job of the newspaper.

The timing couldn't be better, given President Donald Trump's disrespect of African-American women journalists and journalists in general. Seeing the outpouring of support for White House reporters is encouraging.

Those who celebrate the idea of afflicting the comfortable will appreciate the lessons from Dunnigan’s life. Here’s how they came to me after reading her autobiography and talking with others about her: 

Lesson one: Know your place. Despite what was happening in America in the late 1940s from strict segregation to racial violence, Dunnigan knew that she belonged in the mostly white, mostly male White House press corps.

“Alice arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1942, almost a decade before I joined the Washington Post … for a two-year stint that almost killed me, so difficult was it to function as a reporter in a city where even the pet cemeteries were segregated,” wrote Simeon Booker, who penned  the foreword of “Alone atop the Hill,” published in 2015 as a new edition of her 1974 autobiography.

He was the Washington bureau chief for Jet/Ebony from 1956 to 2007. Booker, who died last year at the age of 99, ended with: “Alice’s story should give hope to anyone who has ever doubted his or her ability to make it through tough times or, much more painfully, his or her own worth. Alice’s experience offers a resounding, ‘Yes, you can!’ as long as, in the words of the Negro spiritual, you ‘keep-a-inching along.’"

Lesson two: Bring the pain (or rather the Payne). Numerous women stand on the shoulders of Dunnigan, a champion of both civil rights and women’s rights. One of them, Ethel Payne, the legendary Chicago Defender reporter, ended up working alongside Dunnigan. In the early 1950s, there were just three black reporters in the entire White House press corps. It’s important not only to reflect on the lives of those pioneers and others but also to actively honor their legacies. Christina Carrega, for example, wore her Ida B. Wells T-shirt the day that she was laid off from the New York Daily News. She made it a point to leave with her head held high, “because this is bigger than me.” Today, Carrega, as a deputy managing editor for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle/Daily Queens Eagle, can open doors for others. Others keep Wells quotes close at hand. Sonali Kohli, reporter at the Los Angeles Times, has these powerful words on her Twitter profile page: “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”

Lesson three: Be unstoppable (literally). Dunnigan described a racial incident that happened while she was covering President Harry Truman’s 1948 cross-country tour. A military officer ordered her to “get behind those ropes” as she walked with the presidential motorcade in Cheyenne, Wyoming. When she didn’t stop, the officer grabbed and shoved her. A fellow reporter came to her defense, resulting in the motorcade being able to proceed without further incident.  

“I’m able to do what I’m doing today because of her,” said Cheriss May, a Howard University adjunct journalism professor and White House press corps photographer. “We have to carry the torch and to continue to move the needle forward.”

Dunnigan was posthumously inducted into the NABJ Hall of Fame in 2013. Her autobiography is now more accessible and her statue was unveiled at the Newseum in September. 

Many say the attention is long overdue.

“She was the mother of a movement,” said Sonya Ross, a former White House reporter who now serves as the Associated Press’s race and ethnicity editor. Ross was part of a group of women who gathered at the statue last month to pay tribute to Dunnigan. They called themselves the Daughters of Alice.

As for Dunnigan, she wore many hats throughout her career. She worked to get Democrats elected and went on to work for Kennedy’s administration. During her reporting days, Dunnigan regularly pawned her watch to purchase essentials. She never stopped being an advocate, as was the tradition of the black press.

Regarding the headline, “Negro Reporter Gets First Answer in Two Years,” here’s the excerpt from the Jan. 25, 1961, transcript of President John F. Kennedy's first press conference:

QUESTION: Does your Administration plan to take any steps to solve the problem in Fayette County, Tennessee, where tenant farmers have been evicted from their homes because they voted last November, and must now live in tents?

THE PRESIDENT: The Congress, of course, enacted legislation which placed very clearly responsibility on the Executive Branch to protect the right of voting. I supported that legislation. I am extremely interested in making sure that every American is given the right to cast his vote without prejudice to his rights as a citizen, and therefore I can state that this Administration will pursue the problem of providing that protection, with all vigor."

What struck me about this exchange is its timeliness. We’re still talking about voting issues today, which underscores the importance of journalists holding leaders accountable. During this time of gratitude, I’m thankful for Alice Dunnigan and others like her.