Born: April 27, 1906 – Russellville, Kentucky
Died: May 6, 1983 – Washington, D.C.
In the editor’s note to Alone Atop the Hill: The Autobiography of Alice Dunnigan, Carol M. Booker wrote, “It wasn’t the poverty of a washerwoman’s life in rural Kentucky that drove young Alice Allison relentlessly to succeed as a professional. Poverty would be with her most of her life, even as a national reporter for more than 100 black weekly newspapers. What spurred her on was a keen intellect, immense determination, and a yearning for dignity and respect despite intractable racial barriers.”
Dunnigan lived the quintessential American story of a socially, economically, and educationally disadvantaged person who worked her way up from humble beginnings to resounding professional success. She became the first African American woman to be a White House correspondent and a credentialed member of the press galleries in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
She was born near Russellville to sharecroppers Willie and Lena Pitman Allison, and her fate seemed sealed when she married a tobacco farmer at age 19. But she wanted more from life and ended the marriage in 1930 to teach public school in nearby Todd County while enrolled in Journalism courses at Tennessee A & I College (now Tennessee State University).
In 1936, she became a freelance reporter for the Chicago branch of the American Negro Press (ANP). She became a reporter for the Chicago Defender in 1946 while enrolled at Howard University in statistics and economics courses, and later a staff reporter for the ANP. In 1948, she covered President Harry S. Truman’s re-election campaign. Because the ANP wouldn’t fund her travel on the campaign trail, she raised the money herself.
Even at the peak of her career, she constantly battled discrimination. In 1953, she was banned from covering a speech by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in a whites-only auditorium. When Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio died in 1953, she was forced to sit with the servants to cover his funeral.
Dunnigan left ANP in 1960 to work for John F. Kennedy-Lyndon B. Johnson presidential campaign. She was on the Johnson’s staff, continuing to serve when he became president after Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963. She held several other government jobs until she retired in 1977.
Dunnigan authored two books and wrote hundreds of news stories and columns. Her reporting appeared in dozens of black newspapers, including The Chicago Defender and the PittsburghCourier.
Dunnigan was honored in 2018 with a life-size bronze sculpture by Amanda Matthews of Prometheus Foundry of Lexington. The statue was on display at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.; the Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri; and the W.T. Young Library at the University of Kentucky in Lexington before being placed permanently in Russellville.
A Black Woman’s Experience: From Schoolhouse to Whitehouse, 1974. A shorter version was republished as Alone Atop the Hill: The Autobiography of Alice Dunnigan, edited by Carol M. Booker. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015.
The Fascinating Story of Black Kentuckians: Their Heritage and Tradition. Washington: Associated Publishers, 1982.