During a recent call from a young journalist our discussion touched on the history of Black women in the profession and I was reminded of a pacesetter who is seldom mentioned—Alice Allison Dunnigan. Okay, I know she isn’t a household name now but there was a time when she was a significant journalist, most notably as the first African American woman credentialed to cover the White House.
Born April 27, 1906 near Russellville, Kentucky, Dunnigan was of mixed ancestry, but mostly African American and Native American. Her ancestral roots included both slaves and slave owners. No matter her bloodlines, her father was a sharecropper and her mother a laundress. Somewhat a prodigy, she began her journalistic journey at 13 writing for the Owensboro Enterprise, and thus her quest to experience life as a reporter was underway.
Dunnigan completed a teaching course at Kentucky Normal and Industrial Institute where she excelled and later began teaching history in the Todd County School System. To combat the racist discrimination in the syllabus she incorporated historical documents and information pertinent to the Black experience. From 1924 to 1942, she taught in the Kentucky public school system. It was during this phase of her career that she took time out to marry Charles Dunnigan; they had one child and by 1953 they were no longer together. She was an innovative and visionary teacher, and when the history of her people wasn’t available she compiled this material into what became a required text by 1939. It was subsequently published in 1982 under the title of The Fascinating Story of Black Kentuckians—Their Heritage and Tradition.
When a call was announced for government workers in 1942, Dunnigan answered the call and moved to Washington, D.C. For the next four years she was employed in various federal departments before taking a job with the Chicago Defender as its Washington correspondent. In one way it was a plum opportunity but in another it did not come with a salary commensurate with the male reporters. She was forced so supplement her income with other writing assignments.
From 1947 to 1961, Dunnigan was chief of the Washington Bureau of the Associated Negro Press. From this niche she expanded her duties and in succession was a member of the Senate and House of Representatives press galleries. It was in 1948 that she made her memorable appointment as a White House correspondent. In this capacity she was one of three Black reporters in the press corps that followed President Harry Truman’s Western campaign, though she had to pay her own way. But it was worth the sacrifice after being named a White House correspondent and later elected to the Women’s National Press Club. This new niche provided her with the steppingstone she coveted to travel abroad, and she was later honored by Haitian President François Duvalier for the articles she published on Haiti.
It was by no means easygoing for her at the White House where she was often ignored when she raised her hand to ask a question. When President Eisenhower was in office he would only take her questions after they had been vetted, a process that Dunnigan never acceded to. Things improved for her when President Kennedy held a press conference, often welcoming her tough questions. In 1961, she was named to the President’s Committee on Equal Employment as an education consultant. She served as an associate editor with the President’s Commission on Youth Opportunity from 1967 to 1970. There was also a period of time when she worked as an information specialist for the Department of Labor and then as an editorial assistant for Youth Opportunity council. With the arrival of Richard Nixon and the Republican Party, Dunnigan and other reporters favorable to the Democrats packed their bags and departed.
Her exit from the White House meant she had time to focus on writing about herself and completed her autobiography A Black Woman’s Experience: From Schoolhouse to White House in 1974. A new edition of the book appeared in 2015. The book was a clear-eyed summation of her days coming of age in Kentucky and the often tumultuous years in journalism where she covered not only the political events in the White House but also the emerging Civil Rights Movement.
She accumulated countless awards and commendations, culminating in her induction into the Black Journalist Hall of Fame in 1985 two years after her death from a bowel disease.
Dunnigan’s mark on the world has been commemorated with a statue, including one recently celebrated outside the Newseum, not too far from the National Mall. It was later relocated to her hometown in Kentucky before going to the Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri. Last year the monument finally arrived in Russellville where it is now permanently located in the Alice Dunnigan Memorial Park and part of the city’s historic district and part of the West Kentucky African American Heritage Center.