Alice Allison Dunnigan April 27, 1906 – May 6, 1983 Notable: Journalist Nationality: American
Alice Allison was born in Logan County near Russellville, Kentucky to Lena and Willie Pittman Allison. Allison’s grandparents had been enslaved but the family also had blood ties to White slave owners as well as Native Americans. Like many Black men and women of the time, Allison’s father earned a living as a sharecropper while her mother was a washerwoman. While many other Black families with similar jobs struggled, the Allisons had a comfortable lifestyle due to owning land and a relatively large home.
Allison’s parents were strict and instilled a strong work ethic in her and her older half-brother. At the age of four, Allison was enrolled in school which she attended one day per week. By the first grade, Allison had learned to read. In her early teens, she was writing short articles for the Owensboro Enterprise, a local Black newspaper. It was her dream to become a newspaper reporter.
Russellville’s schools were segregated and Black children were provided with limited educational opportunities. Black children in the local school system were only offered ten years of education versus the 12 to 14 years offered to White students. For example, the high school that Allison attended was for two years rather than four.
Initially, when Allison graduated from high school her parents felt that she’d obtained enough education and there was no need for further study. But a Sunday school teacher was eventually able to convince her parents otherwise. Having to pay for Allison’s entire college tuition and expenses at Kentucky Normal and Industrial Institute would have been a financial burden for the family. To decrease tuition costs, Allison became a waitress in the school’s cafeteria.
Allison continued to be a good student and performed well during her first semeste. But the burden of working and attending college proved too much. Unable to continue doing both, Allison eventually left school due to financial reasons. But given her strong academic record, she was able to obtain a teaching permit.
Returning to Russellville, Allison would spend the next 18 years as a teacher. But given the nature of segregation, she received inadequate pay and resources. The school at which she first worked was rundown. Allison and the parents of students had to pitch in and help with its cleanup and renovation to make it more comfortable. Black teachers were underpaid and as a woman, she received an even lower annual salary that never exceeded $800. Like other Black teachers, Allison had a summer job and also cleaned the home of a local White family to make ends meet.
Allison married twice while in her 20s. Her first marriage to Walter Dickerson ended after four years as Allison did not enjoy the responsibilities of farming. The second marriage to a childhood friend, Charles Dunnigan, would end after 20 years due in part to the couple living apart for work. The union produced a son, Robert.
In pursuit of jump-starting a journalism career and in search of better employment opportunities, Dunnigan left her son in the care of her parents and moved to Louisville. Now in a larger city, she began writing for Black-owned newspapers. Taking advantage of the need for workers during World War II, Dunnigan accepted a federal job in Washington, D.C.
She took night classes at Howard University that enabled her to further increase her income and send more money home for her son. Yet, despite what was becoming a comfortable career in government, Dunnigan maintained an interest in journalism.
In 1946, Dunnigan accepted a position as the Washington correspondent for the legendary Chicago Defender. She also accepted a full-time position at the American Negro Press (ANP) and later became the bureau chief. Her position with the ANP eventually allowed her to become the first Black woman to obtain a Congressional Press Pass.
The 14 years that Dunnigan would spend as ANP bureau chief was filled with highs and lows. Much of her writing focused on policy and politics as related to the Black community. She developed a reputation for asking hard questions related to desegregation and equal opportunities.
Dunnigan was one of the few Black and/or female journalists in the press corp for Harry S. Truman’s presidential campaign. This was despite not receiving financial support for the trip from the ANP and having to secure a personal loan. Truman treated Dunnigan with respect but President Eisenhower and others ignored her attempts to ask questions during press events. Racist language was openly used in congressional meetings and at times she was either prevented from attending or made to sit in the segregated section of events.
The practice of ignoring or otherwise treating Dunnigan unprofessionally finally ended during the Kennedy administration. Kennedy extended an appointment to the President’s Committee on Equal Opportunity which Dunnigan accepted. She later received and accepted positions in President Johnson’s administration.
Dunnigan retired in 1970 and spent some time working on her autobiography which was published in 1974. The book was later trimmed down from its original 700 pages for republication. Alice Allison Dunnigan died on May 6, 1983, at the age of 77. She had received numerous awards during her life and a bronze statue was created in her honor that was eventually permanently installed in Russellville.
- Aykroyd, Lucas. 2020. “Alice Dunnigan, the First Black Woman Journalist to Get White House Press Credentials.” Mental Floss. Mental Floss. October 21, 2020. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/633765/alice-dunnigan-first-black-woman-journalist-white-house-press-credentials.
- Kelly, Kate. 2022. “Alice Dunnigan: First Black Woman Reporter to Cover White House.” America Comes Alive. January 16, 2022. https://americacomesalive.com/alice-dunnigan-first-black-woman-reporter-to-cover-white-house/.
- Morrow, Michael. n.d. “Alice Allison Dunnigan Was a National Pioneer Journalist for African Americans, Women.” The Logan Journal. Accessed December 11, 2022. http://theloganjournal.com/Stories.aspx?Article=guests6.
- Robinson, Yonaia. 2021. “Alice Allison Dunnigan (1906-1983).” Blackpast.org. April 27, 2021. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/allison-dunnigan-alice-1906-1983/.
- Woodson, DonnaMarie. 2022. “Alice Allison Dunnigan: White House Correspondent Trailblazer.” Sarah Stevenson Tuesday Forum Charlotte. February 1, 2022. https://www.tuesdayforumcharlotte.org/2022/02/01/alice-allison-dunnigan-white-house-correspondent-trailblazer/.
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