Monday, February 2, 2015

A Pioneering Reporter's Autobiography Back in Print

Among the remarkable figures one meets in Eye on the Struggle is Alice Dunnigan. The daughter of a Kentucky sharecropper, Dunnigan overcame daunting obstacles to become the first black woman in the Washington Press Corp, a difficult feat as the solidly white group of reporters controlled much of the accreditation process.
    Dunnigan’s autobiography entitled A Black Woman’s Experience—from Schoolhouse to White House was originally published in 1974 and has been out-of-print for a long time. This year, however, under the loving care of Carol McCabe Booker, the book is back in stores under the new name Alone atop the Hill. Booker has done a wonderful job of bringing it back into print and her editor’s notes are terrific. You can learn more about the book here.
    Below is an excerpt from Eye on the Struggle in which I introduce Dunnigan to readers.

Note: Carol McCabe Booker and I will both be on panel discussing our books at the National Press Club on February 25th. Click here for more information about the event.


Dunnigan, a reporter for the Associated Negro Press (ANP), was the first African American female journalist accredited by Congress and the White House. The daughter of a Kentucky sharecropper, at thirteen Dunnigan had set her sights on being a reporter and never let any obstacles get in her way. In 1948, for instance, when Truman took off on a fifteen-day, 9,000-mile train trip that would presage his famous fall campaign whistle-stop tour, Dunnigan paid her own way by taking out a loan after her boss at the ANP, Claude Barnett, refused to approve the $1,000 travel costs. Her boss’s stinginess was a result of sexism rather than parsimony. “I did not think a woman could do the best job on a jaunt of that kind,” he said.

Female reporters had first been seen at presidential press conference during the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, when two women joined the all-male White House press corps. But their entry didn’t signal an acceptance of women on the hard news side of the media. In fact, two years earlier Barnett had only hired Dunnigan to work for the ANP because all the men he approached turned down the pitiful salary he offered. She took the job in return for the title of Washington bureau chief and a low piece rate that was eventually converted to a salary of $25 a week. To make it work, she moved into a basement apartment of a white family’s house, tending the furnace and hauling the ashes to reduce her rent, eating Sunday meals of pig ears and turnip greens, and pawning her jewelry when her paycheck was late.

When she boarded Truman’s train in June 1948, Dunnigan was the first black newspaperwoman to travel on a presidential trip. She was such a rarity that when the train stopped in Cheyenne, Wyoming, a white military policeman thought she didn’t belong in the phalanx of reporters walking down the street behind the car ferrying the president to the capitol building. “Get back there behind this line where you belong,” the police officer called out. When Dunnigan continued to walk, he grabbed her and tried to forcibly direct her toward the sidewalk. But before he could, a young correspondent for the Nashville Tennessean stepped in. “I want you to know,” he told the MP, “you are messing with the party of the president of the United States. You know this woman is with us. She has her badge and she has it on.” The MP backed off.

A couple of days later, Dunnigan sat in her train compartment, her shoes off, her bare feet on the seat, and her typewriter on her lap, when there was a knock on her door. In walked Truman. “I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “I tugged at my skirt. I couldn’t find my shoes. I knew I should be standing up, but I couldn’t move.”

“I heard you had a little trouble,” Truman said in a quiet voice. “Well, if anything else happens, please let me know.”

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