President John F. Kennedy reaches down to speak with Alice Dunnigan, the Russellville native who became the first black woman to be a widely accredited Washington journalist. Photo courtesy of Carol McCabe Booker
Alice Allison Dunnigan grew up on a red-clay hill in Logan County, the daughter of a poor sharecropper and a washerwoman.
She, too, would wash clothes and clean houses for white people before working her way through Kentucky State University to realize her first big dream, becoming a school teacher.
But Dunnigan is remembered today for climbing another hill — Capitol Hill — where in the late 1940s she became the first black woman journalist accredited to Congress, the White House and other major assignments in Washington, D.C.
Dunnigan died in 1983 at age 77, but Carol McCabe Booker, a former journalist and lawyer, remembers meeting her once at a party. Dunnigan was a friend of Booker’s husband, Simeon, 96, another pioneering black journalist.
But it wasn’t until two years ago, when the National Association of Black Journalists inducted both Dunnigan and Simeon Booker into its hall of fame, that Booker learned more about this woman’s amazing life story.
She tracked down a rare copy of Dunnigan’s 1974 self-published autobiography, A Black Woman’s Experience: From Schoolhouse to White House. It inspired her to edit a new edition of the book, which the University of Georgia Press will publish Feb. 15 as Alone atop the Hill ($26.95).
Booker will be in Kentucky next week to talk about Dunnigan and sign books. She speaks Feb. 17 at the Kentucky Historical Society‘s monthly Food for Thought lunch in Frankfort ($25, or $20 for members; reservations due Feb. 13. Call (502) 564-1792, ext. 4414, or email email@example.com).
The next day, Booker speaks to KSU students. And on Feb. 19, she goes to Dunnigan’s hometown for a free, public event at 2 p.m. in Russellville’s African American Heritage Center, 252 South Morgan Street, sponsored by the Kentucky Human Rights Commission.
Dunnigan tells her compelling story in the clear, direct style that made her an influential voice in black newspapers nationwide when she was Washington bureau chief for the Associated Negro Press news service.
“I thought she deserved the right to tell her story in her own words, in her own voice,” Booker said when we talked by phone last week. “I wanted Alice to have a chance in this new era.”
Dunnigan’s writing needed little editing, Booker said. But she did make one big change: she cut the 670-page autobiography by more than half, leaving out the last chapters that covered her years in government service after she left her poverty-wage journalism job in 1960. The final chapters were not nearly as interesting as the rest of the story, Booker said.
The new book is a fascinating read, filled with anecdotes that show how pervasive discrimination limited possibilities for both blacks and women at the time. Dunnigan always thought her gender was as much of a hindrance as her race.
“That’s why I think the story has wide appeal,” Booker said. “A young woman of any race reading that story can glean some inspiration from it.”
Dunnigan’s motto was, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” She decided at age 13 to become both a teacher and a journalist to “tell people how to improve their lives.” But her parents and husbands from two failed marriages offered little encouragement.
Even after Dunnigan “made it” in Washington, she was barred from some venues, or had to sit with servants at events instead of with other reporters. She endured openly racist congressmen and President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s refusal to answer her tough news conference questions about discrimination and civil rights.
Dunnigan, the first black woman elected to the Women’s National Press Club, got access to power because she demanded it. She won respect and dozens of journalism awards for her accuracy, fairness and persistence.
But she never made much money in journalism. Dunnigan often had to pay her own travel expenses to cover stories, and she writes of pawning her watch each Saturday so she would have enough money to eat until her paycheck arrived on Monday.
A year before her death, Dunnigan published her second book, The Fascinating Story of Black Kentuckians: Their Heritage and Tradition. It is a collection of sketches she wrote in the 1930s to inspire students in the segregated schools where she taught.
“You could say that Alice had one fantastic career as a communicator in three venues — teaching, journalism and government,” Booker said. “It was being a teacher on a broader level.”
Alice Dunnigan, the Russellville native who became the first black woman to be a widely accredited Washington journalist, greets A.B. “Happy” Chandler, the former Kentucky governor, senator and U.S. baseball commissioner. Photo courtesy of Carol McCabe Booker