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First Black women to cover the White House are honored in the briefing room

Written by The Anand Market

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On her first day at the White House, Alice Dunnigan had every reason to stand out.

She was the first black woman to be accredited to join the White House press corps, and she even arrived an hour early to cover her first news conference with President Harry S. Truman. But as she sat in the West Wing lobby, she might as well have been invisible.

“I sat there, alone and seemingly unnoticed, observing all the activity while occasionally glancing at my journal,” she wrote in her autobiography, “Alone Atop the Hill” . “If anyone wondered who I was or why I was there, they made no effort to find out.”

More than 75 years later, Ms. Dunnigan’s memory is honored in the same setting where her colleagues once ignored her.

Karine Jean-Pierre, White House press secretary, in November named a new desk in the White House briefing room for Ms. Dunnigan of the Associated Negro Press and Ethel L. Payne, who joined him on the beat a few years later for The Chicago Defender.

“The White House lectern is a powerful symbol of freedom and democracy broadcast regularly around the world,” said Ms. Jean-Pierre, who is the first black woman to serve as White House press secretary. . “I can’t think of two better people associated with this symbol than Alice and Ethel.”

Over the years, the briefing room lectern has become as much a cultural artifact as a political one, anchoring a room accessible to a privileged few.

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In November, Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, named a new desk after the two journalists, who also received the honor from the White House Correspondents’ Association.Credit…Pete Marovich for the New York Times

April Ryan, Washington bureau chief and senior White House correspondent for The Grio, and the longest-serving black woman in the White House press corps, said the decision to honor Ms. Dunnigan and Ms. Payne made you feel “seen”.

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“There are still moments of crescendo in black America, and we are the only ones asking these questions, or writing these stories, and asking black people questions that no one else dares, wants, or does not think I’m important enough to pose,” she said. said.

Mrs. Ryan, who was attacked by former President Donald Trump and conservatives for asking questions about black Americans, said the choice of these two women was particularly poignant.

Both women were berated by White House officials and then ignored by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was often troubled by their questions about civil rights.

Mrs. Dunnigan, who had to pawning your jewelry to survive between two paychecks, said white journalists took it for granted that they would be allowed to cover the White House.

“To them, this was nothing unusual because white journalists with reputation and status had always been accredited to the White House,” Ms. Dunnigan wrote of her colleagues, who ultimately addressed what she called for “informal congratulations” on obtaining her accreditations.

“I appreciated and cherished this honor even though I felt that I had earned it at my expense,” she wrote, “through strenuous preparation, perseverance, hard work, acceptable qualifications, perseverance, heroic combat and proven abilities. »

She recalled how she managed to flirt with her colleagues during a cross-country train trip with Mr. Truman. When the train stopped in Missoula, Montana, in the middle of the night, many other reporters were sleeping as Mr. Truman emerged in a bathrobe and spoke to a crowd of waiting students about civil rights.

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She was still awake, and journalists who missed the moment pressured her not to publish the resulting article, for fear it would make them look bad. But she posted anyway, with a headline declaring: “President in Pajamas Defends Civil Rights at Midnight.”

It took Ms. Payne three months to ask her first question at one of Mr. Eisenhower’s news conferences, from an extract from his biography, “Looking at the struggle. » The day came in February 1954, when she asked him if the Howard University choir had been prevented from performing at a celebration the president was attending – a detail that had been left out in other event coverage.

“The white press was so busy asking questions about other topics that black people and their issues were completely ignored,” Ms. Payne said of her time in the White House.

Whether Mr. Eisenhower would take steps to ban segregation in interstate travel after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education of 1954 was the one that got him rejected. Not only did Mr. Eisenhower stop calling him, according to his biographerbut the White House press secretary attempted to revoke her press credentials.

Mrs. Payne became known as “first lady of the black press,” and his coverage of the civil rights movement was so instrumental that President Lyndon B. Johnson invited her to the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and gave her one of the pens he used to sign the landmark legislation.

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Martha Joynt Kumar, a presidential scholar who has documented the relationship between the press and the White House for decades, said the Dunnigan-Payne lectern was a rare display of solidarity between the White House and the press.

“It looks fluffy,” Ms. Kumar said, “but it’s not.”

The lectern’s name was inspired by the White House Correspondents’ Association’s creation of a lifetime achievement award to honor the two women in 2022. Ms. Kumar said the lectern Dunnigan- Payne joins others of importance including Blue Goose, which is used for formal presidential speeches, and Toast, which is used for toasts at events such as state dinners.

Judy Smith, who served as deputy press secretary to President George HW Bush, and was the first black woman to lead a White House press conferencesaid the weight of the White House briefing room is felt by those sitting on both sides of the lectern.

“To speak on the podium, to address critical issues that affect the country, and every word you say is taken so seriously, and cut up and analyzed in so many different ways – it’s a huge responsibility,” Ms. Smith said, who inspired the character of Olivia Pope in the hit series “Scandal”, said in an interview.

“I also think it’s important to recognize these women,” she added, “and the weight of responsibility they feel.”

Alicia Dunnigan, Ms Dunnigan’s granddaughter, said her grandmother would be “overwhelmed” by the news of the lectern, which was officially opened in November.

“She wanted to inspire future generations,” Ms. Dunnigan said of her grandmother, who died in 1983. “The significance of that podium — I’m sure she could never have designed something so important and permanent, to represent a beacon in this room, in his name.

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April Ryan, Washington bureau chief of The Grio, was attacked by former President Donald Trump and conservative media for asking questions about Black Americans.Credit…Jonathan Ernst/Reuters