Alice Dunnigan, First Black Woman to Cover White House, Will Get Statue at Newseum

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The daughter of a Kentucky sharecropper, Alice Allison Dunnigan endured poverty, segregation and sexism as she fought to fulfill her dream of becoming a journalist.

She went on to become the first black woman accredited to cover the White House.

Ms. Dunnigan became the head of the Associated Negro Press Washington Bureau on Jan. 1, 1947. She spent 14 years filing stories printed in 112 African-American newspapers across the country, and broke numerous barriers along the way.

Now, she will be honored with a 6-foot bronze statue at the Newseum, a museum in Washington dedicated to the press and the First Amendment. The sculpture is being created by the artist Amanda Matthews of Lexington, Ky., and is based on a 1947 photograph of Ms. Dunnigan on the steps of the United States Capitol, holding a copy of The Washington Post.

“Alice was such a barrier breaker for women and people of color, we were happy to have the opportunity to embrace her here at the museum,” said Carrie Christoffersen, curator and vice president of exhibits at the Newseum.

The work will be on view at the museum from Sept. 21 through Dec. 16. Afterward, it will be taken to Ms. Dunnigan’s hometown, Russellville, Ky., and installed on the grounds of the West Kentucky African-American Heritage Center.

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Ms. Matthews said she had been inspired by the persistence shown by Ms. Dunnigan, who died in 1983. (Read Ms. Dunnigan’s Times obituary here.)

“I think we should have more diverse heroes, and Alice Dunnigan should be one of them,” she said.

Ms. Dunnigan described her journey in a 1974 autobiography, “A Black Woman’s Experience: From Schoolhouse to White House.”

An edited version of the book, titled “Alone Atop the Hill: The Autobiography of Alice Dunnigan, Pioneer of the National Black Press,” was published in 2015 by University of Georgia Press.

Carol McCabe Booker, the editor, focused the book more squarely on Ms. Dunnigan’s journalism career, and shortened it from its original 670 pages.

Her late husband, Simeon Booker, who was the Washington bureau chief of Jet and Ebony and was known as the dean of Washington’s black press corps, wrote the foreword.

“Alice’s story should give hope to anyone who has ever doubted his or her ability to make it through tough times or, much more painfully, his or her own worth,” he wrote.

Ms. Dunnigan, who was born in 1906 and whose mother was a washerwoman, fought to go to school and became a teacher, married twice and held many jobs as she struggled to write and make ends meet.

She went to Washington to work as a typist for the government during World War II, and eventually persuaded the reluctant editor of the Associated Negro Press agency to give her a job.

In addition to her White House credentials, she was also the first black woman to receive credentials to report on Congress, the State Department and the Supreme Court. She accompanied President Harry S. Truman on his 1948 “whistle stop” campaign tour, peppered presidents and congressmen with questions about civil rights, and traveled extensively.

But she struggled economically, even as she excelled in her career. With a low salary and a son to support, she sometimes pawned her watch to make it until payday, according to her autobiography.

Ms. Dunnigan left daily journalism in 1961, taking positions with presidential committees on equal opportunity for youth and minorities. In addition to her autobiography, she wrote about the history of black Kentuckians in her later years.

She received more than 50 journalism awards, and was posthumously inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame in 2013.

In the preface to her autobiography, Ms. Dunnigan wrote of the crucial role that the black press had played in documenting the struggle for civil rights.

“Without black writers, the world would perhaps never have known of the chicanery, shenanigans, and buffoonery employed by those in high places to keep the black man in his (proverbial) place by relegating him to second-class citizenship,” she wrote.

She added that she hoped her own story would encourage young writers.

News organizations today are more diverse, but they still do not mirror the racial and ethnic makeup of the country as a whole. A recent survey by the American Society of News Editors of newspapers and online news sites found that the number of black female journalists was just 2.62 percent of the total work force. (Television stations tend to be more diverse.)

Ms. Booker, the editor, said she hoped readers would glean some wisdom from Ms. Dunnigan’s experience and writing.

“If you don’t look back at history,” she said, “you can’t tell much about what the future might hold.”

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