You are here

Dunnigan: An Inspiration

Dunnigan: An Inspiration


Black History Month includes celebration

of White House correspondent Alice Dunnigan

She was the daughter of a Kentucky sharecropper.

Her pen fought racism and sexism in post-World War II America.

She pawned her watch repeatedly to make ends meet.

Alice Allison Dunnigan persevered, becoming the first African-American woman to receive press credentials to cover the White House and Congress. 

From the New York Timesto the Kentucky Kernel, the inspirational tale of Dunnigan created a national media buzz over the past five months. At an event during Black History Month, students and faculty in the School of Journalism and Media honored Dunnigan in the form of a life-sized statue. 

Kerneleditor Bailey Vandiver and art director Arden Barnes documented the unveiling of the statue at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., in a Sept. 21 news article, then again in a Feb. 5 story after the statue was celebrated at UK. It was on display for three weeks in the lobby of the W.T. Young Library, beginning on Jan. 19.

For Sonja Feist-Price, UK vice president for institutional diversity, the February event added meaning to her day-to-day interactions with students. Vandiver quoted her as saying:

“As I share with our students, faculty and staff often, we really are standing on the shoulders of others that have gone before us, and Ms. Dunnigan is truly one of those giants whose shoulders we stand upon.” 

The September event covered by the Kernel received national news coverage, including from the New York Times, the Newseum, the Associated Press and the National Association of Black Journalists, who inducted Dunnigan into their hall of fame in 2013.

The February gathering, held in conjunction with a luncheon that included Dunnigan family members and civil rights scholars and activists, was co-sponsored by the UK School of Journalism and Media and the Bluegrass chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. UK President Eli Capilouto visited with the group before the lunch at the Boone Center


"It was a great day at UK on Monday (Feb. 4) when relatives of pioneering African American journalist Alice Allison Dunnigan, along with guests from Russellville, came to visit the statue of Dunnigan on display in the Young Library," said Professor Al Cross, who facilitated the SPJ support, in a Facebook post.

Cross worked as a newspaperman in Dunnigan's hometown, Russellville, Kentucky, where the statue will be placed in the West Kentucky African American Heritage Center. 

Before then, the statue will make a stop at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri.

Students posting on the school's social media outlets about the Dunnigan statue got a real lesson in not only journalism history but also American history and politics.

“Race and sex were twin strikes against me," Dunnigan once said. "I’m not sure which was the hardest to break down.”


A few highlights:

1906: Born in Russellville, Kentucky, to a father who was a sharecropper and a mother who took in laundry for a living. Attended school one day a week at 4 years old. 
1919: Began writing for the Owensboro Enterpriseat the age of 13 and aspired to be a newspaper reporter. She instead became a Todd County schoolteacher in a segregated education system teaching Kentucky history, supplementing texts with stories of successful black Kentuckians.

1947: Became the first black female member of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives press galleries and led the Associated Negro Press Washington Bureau, serving more than 100 African-American newspapers around the United States.

1948: Became the first African-American woman White House correspondent. First African-American woman on a presidential campaign junket when she went on the whistle-stop tour with President Truman. She paid her own way.
1960: Joined Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidential campaign for the Democratic nomination won by John F. Kennedy

1974: Published her autobiography, “A Black Woman’s Experience: From Schoolhouse to White House.” Carol McCabe Booker edited and annotated a new edition published in 2015 by University of Georgia Press and titled “Alone Atop the Hill: The Autobiography of Alice Dunnigan, Pioneer of the National Black Press.”

1982: Inducted in the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in its second year.

1983: Died at the age of 77 in Washington, D.C.
The 6-foot bronze statue by artist Amanda Matthews of Lexington is modeled after a 1947 photograph of Dunnigan standing outside the Capitol in Washington, D.C. It depicts her wearing a hat and pearls with a folded newspaper in her hands.

"Alice Dunnigan envisioned a future of equality," Matthews told the AP in September at the Newseum, "and she dedicated her life to that vision as a teacher, a journalist, an editor and a champion for civil rights and women." 

-      By Buck Ryan, associate professor