First Black Women to Cover the White House Are Honored in the Briefing Room

On her first day covering the White House, Alice Dunnigan had every reason to stand out.

She was the first Black woman to be credentialed to join the White House press corps, and she had even arrived an hour early to cover her first news conference with President Harry S. Truman. But as she sat in the lobby of the West Wing, she may as well have been invisible.

“I sat there alone and apparently unnoticed, taking in all the activity while glancing now and then at my newspaper,” she wrote in her autobiography, “Alone Atop the Hill.” “If anyone wondered who I was or why I was there, they made no effort to find out.”

More than 75 years later, Ms. Dunnigan’s memory is being honored in the same setting where her colleagues once ignored her.

Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, in November named a new lectern in the White House briefing room for Ms. Dunnigan of The Associated Negro Press and Ethel L. Payne, who joined her on the beat a few years later for The Chicago Defender.

“The White House lectern is a powerful symbol of freedom and democracy beamed around the world on a regular basis,” said Ms. Jean-Pierre, who is the first Black woman to serve as White House press secretary. “I can’t think of two better people to be associated with that symbol than Alice and Ethel.”

Over the years, the briefing room lectern has become as much a cultural artifact as a political one, anchoring a room accessible to a privileged few.

April Ryan, the Washington bureau chief and senior White House correspondent for The Grio, and the longest-serving Black woman in the White House press corps, said the decision to honor Ms. Dunnigan and Ms. Payne made her feel “seen.”

“There are still crescendo moments in Black America, and we are the only ones who are asking those questions, or writing those stories, and asking Black questions that no one else dares, or wants, or thinks are important enough to ask,” she said.

Ms. Ryan, who has been attacked by former President Donald Trump and conservative media for asking questions that pertain to Black Americans, said the choice of these two women was particularly poignant.

Both women were chastised by White House officials and later ignored by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was often flustered by their questions about civil rights.

Ms. Dunnigan, who had to pawn her jewelry to make it between paychecks, said that white reporters took for granted that they would be allowed to cover the White House.

“To them it was nothing unusual because white reporters with reputation and status had always been accredited to the White House,” Ms. Dunnigan wrote of her colleagues, who eventually extended what she called “casual congratulations” for obtaining her credentials.

“I appreciated and cherished this honor even though I felt that I had actually earned it the hard way,” she wrote, “through strenuous preparation, perseverance, hard work, acceptable qualifications, persistence, a heroic fight, and proven ability.”

She recalled how she managed to scoop her colleagues during a cross-country train trip with Mr. Truman. When the train stopped in Missoula, Mont., in the middle of the night, many other reporters were asleep as Mr. Truman emerged in his bathrobe and spoke to a waiting crowd of students about civil rights.

She was still awake, and reporters who missed the moment pressured her not to publish the resulting story for fear that it would make them look bad. But she published anyway, with a headline declaring: “Pajama Clad President Defends Civil Rights at Midnight.”

It took three months for Ms. Payne to ask her first question at one of Mr. Eisenhower’s news conferences, according to an excerpt from her biography, “Eye on the Struggle.” The day came in February 1954, when she asked him about the Howard University choir being blocked from performing at a celebration the president attended — a detail that had been left out in other coverage of the event.

“The white press was so busy asking questions on other issues that the blacks and their problems were completely ignored,” Ms. Payne said of her time at the White House.

A question about whether Mr. Eisenhower would take action on banning segregation in interstate travel after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision was the one that got her shunned. Not only did Mr. Eisenhower stop calling on her, according to her biographer, but the White House press secretary attempted to revoke her press credentials.

Ms. Payne went on to become known as the “first lady of the Black press,” and her coverage of the civil rights movement was so instrumental that President Lyndon B. Johnson invited her to the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and gave her one of the pens he used to sign the landmark legislation.

Martha Joynt Kumar, a presidency scholar who has documented the relationship between the press and the White House for decades, said the Dunnigan-Payne lectern was a rare showing of solidarity between the White House and the press corps.

“It seems fluffy,” Ms. Kumar said, “but it isn’t.”

The naming of the lectern was inspired by the White House Correspondents’ Association creating a lifetime achievement award in honor of the two women in 2022. Ms. Kumar said the Dunnigan-Payne lectern joins others of significance, including Blue Goose, which is used for formal presidential speeches, and Toast, which is used for toasts at events like state dinners.

Judy Smith, who served as a deputy press secretary for President George H.W. Bush, and was the first Black woman to lead a White House press briefing, said the weight of the White House briefing room is felt by those who sit on both sides of the lectern.

“Speaking from the podium, addressing critical issues that affect the country, and every single word you say is taken very seriously, and sliced and parsed in so many different ways — it’s a tremendous responsibility,” Ms. Smith, who was the inspiration for the character Olivia Pope on the hit show “Scandal,” said in an interview.

“I also think that it’s important to acknowledge and recognize these women,” she added, “and the weight of the responsibility they felt as well.”

Alicia Dunnigan, Ms. Dunnigan’s granddaughter, said her grandmother would be “overcome” by the news of the lectern, which was officially dedicated in November.

“She wanted to inspire future generations,” Ms. Dunnigan said of her grandmother, who died in 1983. “The significance of that podium — I’m sure she never could’ve conceived of something so prominent and permanent, to stand as a beacon in that room, in her name.”

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