Alice Allison Dunnigan was the first African-American female correspondent at the White House. Dunnigan’s pioneering feat was realised on a summer afternoon in 1947 in the Oval Office.
“It is indeed a long way from that red clay hill in rural Logan County, Ky., to the hallowed halls of this imposing structure,” Dunnigan would later write in her memoir.
“It is a giant step from the ramshackle, unpainted, one-room schoolhouse… to the great magnificent mansion known as the White House.”
Born in 1906 in Russellville, Kentucky, to a tobacco sharecropper father, Willie and a mother, who worked in the laundry, Lena Pitman Allison, Dunnigan was also the first African-American female member of the Senate and House of Representatives press galleries.
Dunnigan started schooling at the age of four, learning to read before entering first. At the age of 13, she had begun writing one-sentence news item for a local black newspaper— Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer, Black History reported.
“She had the journalism bug from the start,” KET’s Connections quoted long-time political reporter Al Cross, who is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.
“Alice was a person of ambition,” Cross continued, adding, “and she saw Washington as a really fertile field where you could plant your stake and make it grow, and she started making connections immediately.”
“It’s really a remarkable story to come from such a relatively low position on the socio-economic totem pole and be in the Oval Office questioning the president,” he added.
Dunnigan trained to be a teacher at the Kentucky Normal and Industrial Institute in Frankfort (now Kentucky State University). After teaching for some time, she decided to pursue her childhood passion – journalism.
Dunnigan began working as a freelance writer for the Chicago, Illinois branch of the American Negro Press (ANP) in 1936. Six months after joining the ANP, she gained accreditations to cover Congress and the Senate, making her the first African-American woman to have such pass. Dunnigan simultaneously studied at Howard University during that time, majoring in statistics and economics.
Dunnigan took a job writing for the Chicago Defender in 1946 before taking up a full time at the ANP, and eventually secured a capitol press pass, Black Past reported.
“With it, she was able to cover news events of the Congress, which was generally kept off limits to most reporters, the public, and especially women and African Americans. She became the first African American to gain a Congressional press pass,” the outlet wrote.
According to multiple accounts, Dunnigan covered Congressional hearings at a time racism in America was widespread and the N-word was commonly used on the floor.
Described as a “straight-shooter”, Dunnigan was one of three African Americans and one of two women in the press corps that covered the campaign of President Harry S. Truman in 1948.
According to Black Past, during her years of covering the White House, she frequently asked questions regarding the burgeoning “civil rights movement and the plight of black America.”
Dunnigan battled extreme racism, segregation, and sexism as the first black woman covering the White House to the extent that she was stopped from covering a speech given by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in a whites-only theater in 1953.
Also, she was forced to sit with the servants to cover Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft’s funeral.
Dunnigan died in 1983 and inducted into the Black Journalists Hall of Fame in 1985. She received more than 50 awards during her lifetime and has been inducted into the Kentucky Halls of Fame for Civil Rights, Journalism and Writers, and the Hall of Fame for the National Association of Black Journalists.
A bronze statue was dedicated to her and located on the grounds of SEEK Museum: Struggles for Emancipation and Equality in Kentucky on the corner of East 6th and South Morgan Streets as part of a new park area dedicated to civil rights.