White House Correspondents’ Association to honor pioneering Black women journalists Alice Dunnigan and Ethel Payne

The WHCA will present the “Dunnigan-Payne Prize” to the families of Dunnigan and Payne at this year's White House Correspondents' Dinner.

Left to right: White House correspondents Alice Dunnigan and Ethel Payne. (Photo: Kentucky Historical Society and Getty Images)

The White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) announced on Monday the creation of a lifetime achievement award in honor of two pioneering Black women journalists. 

The “Dunnigan-Payne Prize” will be presented to the families of the late White House reporters Alice Dunnigan and Ethel Payne at this year’s White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner on April 30. The award will be presented by CBS anchor Gayle King.

Following this weekend’s inaugural presentation, the lifetime achievement award will then be presented on an “occasional basis” at the discretion of the WHCA board to “recognize meritorious service throughout an individual’s career as a White House correspondent,” according to a WHCA press release.

Alice Dunnigan, who worked for the Associated Negro Press, was the first African-American female correspondent to receive White House credentials. Ethel Payne of the Chicago Defender was known as the “First Lady of the Black Press,” and her penchant for asking tough questions as a White House correspondent. Both journalists were two of only three African-American members of the White House Press Corps during the 1950s.

A View Of The White House In Washington On March 23, 1952. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

“This association of White House reporters has never given its due to these two pioneering WHCA members who paved the way for so many,” said WHCA President Steven Portnoy. “We are proud to see to it that Alice Dunnigan and Ethel Payne will be forever remembered for their service to the profession and to the American public.”

Dunnigan, who was also the first African-American woman to receive credentials to cover Congress and the Senate, began her White House correspondent career covering the administration of President Harry Truman. 

In her memoir, Dunnigan described her first day attending a presidential press conference in August, 1947, as a “big day.”

“The occasion was nothing more than a regular weekly news conference. While it was merely old hat to many reporters, to me, it was a thrill of a lifetime,” Dunnigan wrote. 

“Some wanted to know what I was doing there. When I proudly boasted that I had been accredited to the White House press corps, they extended a casual congratulations, implying that this was no big thing. But for me, it represented progress for my race, recognition of the Black press, consideration of women reporters, and a personal honor for me, because I was the very first woman of my race ever to receive such accreditation.”

It was Dunnigan and Ethel Payne’s coverage of President Dwight D. Eisenhower that solidified their careers and changed the landscape for Black journalists covering the White House beat. Both women challenged President Eisenhower on race issues, which drew the ire of the 34th commander in chief. 

5th November 1956: Dwight D Eisenhower (1890 – 1969) the 34th President of the United States of America. Original Publication: Picture Post – 8718 – They Still Like Ike – pub. 1956 (Photo by Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Payne notably pressed Eisenhower on whether his administration would ban segregation in interstate travel, to which the president retorted that the White House would not “support any particular or special group of any kind.” After that exchange resulted in a headline from The Washington Star that read, “President Annoyed by Query on Travel Race Ban Support,” Eisenhower stopped calling on Payne, and his press secretary sought to remove her White House press accreditation, according to The Washington Post.

Similarly, Dunnigan, who asked tough questions about segregated schools on military bases in the South, was often not called on by Eisenhower. 

As the WHCA press release noted, Dunnigan was one of the first ten reporters recognized by President John F. Kennedy during his first press conference in 1961. She asked the newly sworn-in president about Black sharecroppers being evicted from their land in Tennessee as retaliation for registering to vote. Jet Magazine reported at the time that it was the first time Dunnigan had been called on in two years. 

(Original Caption) Kennedy press conference. Washington: President Kennedy, shown at his news conference today, called on Russia to halt what he called its “dangerous” interference in the Berlin Air Corridors while Geneva talks are in progress. The Chief Executive also called congressional attempts to cut foreign aid the “most unwise act possible” in a world wide struggle with communism.

The tenacity of Alice Dunnigan and Ethel Payne paved the way for Black journalists like theGrio’s very own history-making White House Correspondent and D.C. Bureau Chief April D. Ryan. 

This year, Ryan celebrated 25 years working as a White House correspondent, making her the longest-serving Black woman reporter on the beat. For more than two-decades, Ryan has covered the White House admirably despite challenges at every turn. She notably went up against the administration of former President Donald Trump, who threatened to revoke her White House press credentials. 

Trump called Ryan a “loser” after she questioned him about his voter suppression, and his then-press secretary Sean Spicer infamously told her to “stop shaking [her] head” during a White House press briefing. Those exchanges resurfaced questions about the treatment of Black reporters, specifically Black women journalists. Ryan was subsequently ridiculed by supporters of Trump and even received threats of harm.  

April Ryan at press conference with then President Donald Trump. (Photo: White House)

“Many of the reporters at the White House and beyond stand on the shoulders of Alice Dunnigan and Ethel Payne. The irony is some, like me, have flashes that resemble some of their fight just to report,” Ryan said in a statement to theGrio. “If it weren’t for these great women, I would not have seen 25 years at the White House, just reporting on anything and everything presidential as it relates to Black America.”

The creation of the Dunnigan-Payne Prize was approved in January, 2022. Portnoy credited WHCA board members Fin Gomez and Justin Sink as “key to the efforts to bring the honor to fruition.”

“In the face of the racism and sexism of the era, these two women fearlessly brought the concerns of their readers directly to the most powerful man in the world,” Portnoy said. “It is our honor to lift up their legacies.”

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