by Flaminia Luck
Alice Allison Dunnigan is another forgotten heroine of the American civil rights movement, who went from poverty and obscurity right to the very steps of power. A pioneer in the world of journalism, Dunnigan is the first African American woman to do a number of remarkable things that broke down barriers for those who came after her.
Dunnigan was born on 27th April 1906 in rural Logan County, Kentucky. She came from humble beginnings as the daughter of a tobacco sharecropper and laundress. Her grandparents had been slaves. She walked four miles every day to school, which was a one-room shack, where she learnt to read and write. An aspiring journalist from the start, aged 13 she started her own weekly column in the local newspaper, the Owensboro Enterprise.
In the rural South where employment opportunities for Black women were limited, Dunnigan turned to teaching. She taught in local, segregated schools and to make ends meet, did domestic work for white families. While teaching, she noticed there was a clear absence of the role of African-Americans in shaping the history of the state of Kentucky. She went on to write a manuscript called, ‘The Fascinating Story of Black Kentuckians.’ Throughout her life, Dunnigan never forgot where she came from and was always proud of being from a poor, Southern state such as Kentucky.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Dunnigan moved to Washington D.C. like many other African-Americans at the time looking for work. While completing a night course at Howard University, she started reporting for the Chicago Defender and the American Negro Press. At the American Negro Press, she went on to work full-time and became Chief of the Washington Bureau. She held this post for 14 years, despite her boss initially saying: “I was not confident that a girl could do the type of job we needed in Washington.”
Dunnigan first made history on 17th June 1947. When sent to cover the ousting of a Mississippi Senator, Dunnigan was barred from the Capitol – which at the time was reserved for white reporters only. The very next morning, Dunnigan applied to the Standing Committee of Correspondents for the press credentials which would allow her to cover Congress. Although denied initially, her second attempt was successful and she was granted press clearance, making her the first African-American woman in history to do so. She then also secured the credentials to cover the White House, the Senate, the Department of State and the Supreme Court. As an accredited member of the press she was the first Black female reporter allowed to sit in the Capitol Press Gallery, the building she had originally been barred from.
Dunnigan was renowned for her ‘straight-shooting’ style of questioning. She was not afraid to ask difficult or inflammatory questions about desegregation or civil rights. Politicians feared her and President Eisenhower refused to answer her questions during press conferences. She was also made to submit her questions in advance, a policy which no other reporter was made to adhere to. She was even barred from covering one of President Eisenhower’s speeches in a white-only theatre, where she was forced to sit with servants and cover something else.
As described by her son, Robert Dunnigan, she was:
“Persistent. Not pushy or overbearing, but if she asked for something on Monday and did not get it, she would be back the next day and the next until she got what she wanted.”
Dunnigan went on to make history again as the only female African-American reporter in the press corps that followed President Truman’s re-election campaign. When she asked her boss for funding for the trip, she was told: ‘Women don’t go on trips like that’. Despite this, Dunnigan went on the trip anyway even though the police questioned her presence and even physically pulled her out of the line of reporters. This incident made national headlines and President Truman personally apologised to her for it.
She added another notable first to her legacy by becoming the first Black woman to work as a White House correspondent. Then she became the first Black woman elected to the Women’s National Press Club, a position which allowed Dunnigan to travel extensively around the world. By then, she’d established a solid reputation for herself and had a handful of awards and acclamations to her name.
Dunnigan then left the journalism world for politics. As a staunch Democrat, she believed that the Democratic Party was the best vehicle to advance and enact the aims of the Civil Rights Movement. She was then elected by President Kennedy to the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. Then, under the Johnson administration, she served on the Council on Youth Opportunity. She shared a special relationship with Johnson as one of his ancestors had been the Governor of Kentucky.
Retiring from government in 1970, she wrote her autobiography entitled, “A Black Woman’s Experience: From Schoolhouse to Whitehouse”. She died in 1983 at the age of 77. Dunnigan’s story is one of resilience and sheer determination to have such success in a field where she supposedly ‘didn’t belong’. This is echoed by Al Cross of the University of Kentucky, “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.”
Despite being Black, a woman and from the rural South, Dunnigan was a pioneer in a profession that was almost entirely white and male. She worked 16-hour days to document desegregation and the events of the Civil Rights movement for Black audiences. She covered stories that mainstream newspapers didn’t deem important enough, often as they involved racial injustice. Her fearlessness in holding power to account in a time when she was almost always the only Black woman is a testament to her integrity and fortitude of character.
“Fear is the underside of courage and almost anything that you do that’s significant, you may have a little fear in there. But manifest outwardly that fear with courage such that the deeper your fear, the stronger your courage“Alice Allison Dunnigan
About the Author:
Flaminia Luck is a History and International Relations graduate from King’s College London. As an Ambassador of the Holocaust Educational Trust, she is particularly interested in using the lessons of history and its contemporary relevance to modern society to educate people about the dangers of racism and discrimination.