Alice Allison Dunnigan (1906–1983) was an African American journalist, civil rights activist and author. She was the first African American female correspondent to receive White House credentials, and the first black female member of the Senate and House of Representatives press galleries. She has written an autobiography titled Alice A. Dunnigan: A Black Woman’s Experience. She also has a Kentucky State Historical Commission marker dedicated to her.
Alice chronicled the decline of Jim Crow during the 1940s and '50s, influencing her to become a civil rights activist. She was inducted into the Kentucky Hall of Fame in 1982.
Read more about Alice Dunnigan, free from the Logan Journal. During her time as a reporter, she became the first black journalist to accompany a president while traveling, covering Harry S. Truman's 1948 campaign trip.
Dunnigan reported on Congressional hearings where blacks were referred to as "niggers," was barred from covering a speech by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in a whites-only theater, and was not allowed to sit with the press to cover Senator Robert Taft's funeral—she covered the event from a seat in the servant's section. Dunnigan was known for her straight-shooting reporting style. Politicians routinely avoided answering her difficult questions, which often involved race issues.
Dunnigan was born April 27, 1906, in Russellville, Kentucky, to Willie and Lena (Pittman) Allison. Her father was a sharecropper who raised tobacco, her mother took in laundry. She and her half-brother, Russell, were raised in a strict household with an emphasis on a strong work ethic. She had few friends as a child, and as a teenager was prohibited from having boyfriends. She started attending school one day a week at age four, and learned to read before entering the first grade.
Dunnigan's career in journalism began at age 13, when she started writing one-sentence news items for the local Owensboro Enterprise newspaper. She completed the ten years available to blacks in the segregated Russellville school system, but her parents saw no benefit in allowing their daughter to continue her education. A Sunday school teacher intervened, and Dunnigan was allowed to attend college. By the time she had reached college, Dunnigan had set her sights on becoming a teacher, and completed the teaching course at what is now Kentucky State University. Dunnigan was a teacher in Kentucky public schools from 1924 to 1942. A four-year marriage to Walter Dickenson of Mount Pisgeh ended in divorce in 1930. She married Charles Dunnigan, a childhood friend, on January 8, 1932. The couple had one child, Robert William, and separated in 1953.
As a young teacher in the segregated Todd County School system, Dunnigan taught courses in Kentucky history. She quickly learned that her students were almost completely ignorant of the historic contributions of African Americans to the state of Kentucky. She started preparing "Kentucky Fact Sheets" and handing them out to her students as supplements to the required text. These papers were collected for publication in 1939, but no publisher was willing to take them to press. Associated Publishers Inc. finally published the articles in 1982 as The Fascinating Story of Black Kentuckians: Their Heritage and Tradition. The meager pay she earned teaching forced her to work numerous menial jobs during the summer months, when school was not in session. She washed the tombstones in the white cemetery while working four hours a day in a dairy, cleaning house for a family, and doing washing at night for another family, earning a total of about seven dollars a week.
A call for government workers went out in 1942, and Dunnigan moved to Washington, D.C., during World War II seeking better pay and a government job. She worked as a federal government employee from 1942 to 1946, and took a year of night courses at Howard University. In 1946 she was offered a job writing for the Chicago Defender as a Washington correspondent. The Defender was a blackowned weekly 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." Unsure of Dunnigan's abilities, the editor of the Defender paid her much less than her male counterparts until she could prove her worth. She supplemented her income with other writing jobs.
As a writer for the Associated Negro Press news service, Dunnigan sought press credentials to cover Congress and the Senate. The government denied her request on the grounds that she was writing for a weekly newspaper, and reporters covering the U.S. Capitol were required to write for daily publications. Six months later, however, she was granted press clearance, becoming the first African-American woman to gain accreditation. In 1947 she was named bureau chief of the Associate Negro Press, a position she held for 14 years.
In 1948 Dunnigan was one of three African Americans and one of two women in the press corps that followed President Harry S. Truman's Western campaign, paying her own way to do it. Also that year, she became the first African-American female White House correspondent, and was the first black woman elected to the Women's National Press Club. Her association with this and other organizations allowed her to travel extensively in the United States and to Canada, Israel, South America, Africa, Mexico, and the Caribbean. She was honored by Haitian President François Duvalier for her articles on Haiti.
During her years covering the White House, Dunnigan suffered many of the racial indignities of the time, but also earned a reputation as a hard-hitting reporter. She was barred from entering certain establishments to cover President Eisenhower, and had to sit with the servants to cover Senator Taft's funeral. When she attended formal White House functions, she was mistaken for the wife of a visiting dignitary; no one could imagine a black woman attending such an event on her own. During Eisenhower's two administrations, the president resorted first to not calling on her and later to asking for her questions beforehand because she was known to ask such difficult questions, often about race. No other member of the press corps was required to submit their questions before a press conference, and Dunnigan refused. When Kennedy took office, he welcomed Dunnigan's tough questions and answered them frankly.
In 1960 Dunnigan left her seat in the press galleries to take a position on Lyndon B. Johnson's campaign for the Democratic nomination. John F. Kennedy won the nomination, but chose Johnson as his running mate and named Dunnigan education consultant of the President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. She remained with the committee until 1965. Between 1966 and 1967 she worked as an information specialist for the Department of Labor and then as an editorial assistant for the President's Council of Youth Opportunity. When Richard M. Nixon took over the presidency in 1968, Dunnigan, as well as the rest of the Democratic administration, found themselves on their way out of the White House to make way for Nixon's Republican team.
After her White House days, Dunnigan returned to writing, this time about herself. Her autobiography, A Black Woman's Experience: From Schoolhouse to White House, was published in 1974. As its title indicates, the book is an exploration of Dunnigan's life from her childhood in rural Kentucky to her pioneering work both covering the White House and inside it. Despite her extensive work in government and politics, Dunnigan was most proud of her work in journalism, and received more than 50 journalism awards. She died of ischemic bowel disease on May 6, 1983, in Washington, D.C.