Two pioneering Black women in White House press corps honored with lifetime achievement award

A double dose of good news at the end of the week is always welcome; two Black women will be honored tomorrow by the White House Correspondents’ Association for shattering a glass ceiling for women journalists of color.

The first ever “Dunnigan-Payne Prize” will be accepted by the families of Alice Dunnigan and Ethel Payne, who were the first two Black women to reach the White House press corps.

Dunnigan was the first Black woman to enter the White House press corps. She began writing at 13 and worked as a teacher in Kentucky shortly after high school when schools were still segregated. She received her first writing job at the black-owned Chicago Defender in 1946 after working for the federal government in Washington D.C. It was there she began covering Washington as a correspondent. She later joined the Associated Negro Press (ANP) and was granted credentials to cover congress after being denied clearance several months prior on the grounds the ANP was not a daily publication. In 1948, joined the press corps after also being named bureau chief of the ANP the year before. Dunnigan endured many indignations during her career as a journalist, including being denied entry to Washington events and areas that the White press had access to, but she was undeterred by discrimination. She also became the first Black woman elected to the Women’s National Press Club.

Payne’s career as a journalist didn’t begin until 1951 though she long desired to be a writer. She was a library assistant at the Chicago Public Library for several years until 1947. She left for Tokyo, Japan the following year to take a job as a hostess at the Army Special Service Club, and became director of the U.S. Army service club there. During a visit from a reporter with the Chicago Defender, she shared experiences of Black soldiers that she had journaled during her time in Japan. The information she shared would end up published by the Chicago Defender. Her experience led her back to the U.S. where she took a job with Sengstacke Newspapers, publisher of the Chicago Defender, which was also a national publication at the time. Payne started out as an associate editor before becoming a reporter and took over the publication’s Washington bureau in 1953 as White House correspondent, a post she held for 20 years. She was the second Black woman to join the White House press corps.

Opinion: Dunnigan and Payne’s stories of overcoming discrimination to have a place in the upper echelon of U.S. media is the history Republicans in southern states are trying to deny public schools right now.

Their careers with the White House press corps took shape during the demise of the Jim Crow era when segregation still thrived in the workplace. As Black people during that period, seeing a speck of color in high positions was uncommon.

The adversity they endured to make inroads with White media was a hardship that we, as Black professionals, not just journalists, should never take for granted.

But there is a lot of room to grow with representation in news media. News Directors, the true gatekeepers in the TV newsroom, are mostly White in top 50 DMA TV stations. Executive Editors in high-circulation publications fall short as well. In other words, there are still too many Black women not being elevated to positions in the newsroom that they are more than worthy of, and that includes a fair salary.

Dunnigan and Payne’s efforts hopefully serve as a reminder for generations of Black women that they can still be seen and heard in the most prominent spaces of news media.

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