Our White House Reporter Firsts, Unmuted

WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENTS’ ASSOCIATION HONORS ALICE ALLISON DUNNIGAN AND ETHEL PAYNE

The two trailblazing Black women journalists are the first recipients of the WHCA’s newly created Dunnigan-Payne Prize for Lifetime Career Achievement

By Black Women Unmuted

Trailblazing journalists Alice Allison Dunnigan and Ethel Lois Payne are being honored by the nation’s White House correspondents for their enduring legacy of pressing American presidents to take action about racism as efforts to dismantle Jim Crow gained momentum in the 1950s.

Both women, the first and second Black women members of the White House press corps respectively, are the inaugural recipients of a new lifetime achievement award established by the White House Correspondents Association. Gayle King, co-host of “CBS This Morning,” will present the posthumous honors to Allison Dunnigan’s and Payne’s families during the White House Correspondents Dinner in Washington on April 30.

“In the face of the racism and sexism of the era, these two women fearlessly brought the concerns of their readers directly to the most powerful man in the world,” WHCA President Steven Portnoy said in a statement. “It is our honor to lift up their legacies.”

Alice Allison Dunnigan, Washington reporter for The Associated Negro Press, became the first Black woman White House correspondent in 1947. (Photo by Spurlock, from “A Black Woman’s Experience: From Schoolhouse to White House,” by Alice Allison Dunnigan, 1974)

Going forward, the WHCA said, the Dunnigan-Payne Prize for Lifetime Career Achievement will be awarded occasionally, at the WHCA board’s discretion, “to recognize meritorious service throughout an individual’s career as a White House correspondent.”

In the summer of 1947, Alice Allison Dunnigan requested, and received, press credentials to cover Congress, the State Department and the White House for the Associated Negro Press. With that new White House credential in hand, Allison Dunnigan joined the traveling press corps that accompanied President Harry Truman on his national whistle stop campaign tour in 1948, effectively opening the vanguard of American political reporting to Black women journalists.

In recognition of Allison Dunnigan’s accomplishment, Black Women Unmuted launched an effort to document the contributions of the Black women who followed Allison Dunnigan in covering the White House over the past 75 years. Journalism students at Howard University and the University of Maryland began researching and conducting interviews with approximately 30 Black women journalists in early 2022, and their work will be released later this year.

Black Women Unmuted founder Sonya Ross poses with a photo of Payne (L) and Dunnigan (R) at the National Press Club in 2015.(Photo: Sonya Ross)

“The experiences of these women, and their perspectives on the American history they witnessed, are a story that deserves to be told. As Black women, we felt compelled to make that happen,” said Black Women Unmuted founder Sonya Ross, who became the first Black woman elected to the WHCA board in 1999 as a correspondent for The Associated Press.

Ethel Payne, a correspondent for the Chicago Defender, was the first to walk through the door that Allison Dunnigan opened. Payne came to Washington in 1953, joined the White House press corps and became known as “The First Lady of the Black Press” for the way she used her media platform to train a national spotlight on civil rights issues. In 1972, she was hired by CBS as a commentator on the opinion program Spectrum, becoming the first Black woman to perform such a role for a national broadcast network.

Together, Allison Dunnigan and Payne posed challenging questions about racism and civil rights to President Dwight D. Eisenhower during an era when few, if any, other reporters would do so. They were so persistent that Eisenhower stopped calling on them at his press conferences.

Eight minutes into his first press conference on Jan. 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy broke that silence and called on Dunnigan, who promptly asked: “Does your administration plan to take any steps to solve the problem in Fayette County, Tennessee, where tenant farmers have gotten evicted from their homes because they voted last November, and must now live in tents?”  

Kennedy assured Allison Dunnigan that he was “extremely interested” in protecting the voting rights of all citizens, and “I can state that this administration will pursue the problem of providing that protection with all vigor.”  

Allison Dunnigan, a native of Russellville, Kentucky, died in 1983 at age 77. Payne, a Chicago native, died in 1991 at 79.

Ethel Payne, White House correspondent for the Chicago Defender, shown with Air Force One in the background. (Library of Congress photo)

Some of the nation’s best-known Black women journalists are part of the unique sisterhood birthed by Allison Dunnigan and Payne. Here is a sampling:

Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for PBS Newshour in 2018; now a Washington correspondent for NBC News.  

Gwen Ifill, White House reporter for The New York Times from 1991-1994; the first Black woman vice-presidential debate moderator.

Malvyn Johnson, joined Cox Broadcasting in 1969, becoming the third Black woman White House correspondent; covered five presidencies.

Michel Martin, White House reporter for The Wall Street Journal before joining ABC News in 1992.   

Abby Phillip, White House reporter for CNN from 2017-2019; moderator of 2020 Democratic presidential debate in Iowa.

Ayesha Rascoe, White House reporter for Reuters and NPR; current host of NPR’s Weekend Sunday.

April Ryan, White House reporter for American Urban Radio Network and currently for The Grio; one of the nation’s longest-serving White House reporters with 25 years on the beat.

Lee Thornton, White House reporter for CBS News, 1977-1982; the first Black woman White House correspondent for a major broadcasting network.

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