December 6, 2022

Pioneering White House African American reporters Alice Dunnigan and Ethel Payne to be first recipients of the new “Dunnigan-Payne Prize”

Alice Dunnigan and Ethel Payne
Alice Dunnigan and Ethel Payne

The White House Correspondents’ Association announced on Monday the creation of its first-ever lifetime career achievement award, named after the first two African American women to serve as members of the White House press corps.

WHCA said the Dunnigan-Payne Prize for Lifetime Career Achievement will be awarded “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.”

It added that the namesakes of the award, the late reporters Alice Dunnigan of the Associated Negro Press and Ethel Payne of the Chicago Defender, will be the first recipients of the prize. Their relatives will be on hand to accept the posthumous honor at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in Washington on April 30.

Gayle King, co-host of “CBS Mornings,” will present the award at the dinner.

“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.”

Ms. Dunnigan was the first African American female reporter to be credentialed at the White House in 1947. She was joined on the beat by Ms. Payne a few years later. Both women distinguished themselves during the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower, regularly pressing him at his press conferences – when no other reporters would – about his administration’s support for civil rights for Black Americans.

Eisenhower insisted that he eschewed racial discrimination, and that his administration was aiming to do what was “decent and just.” But in the summer of 1954, in response to a question about whether Black Americans could count on his support for a ban on segregation in interstate travel, Eisenhower sternly told Ms. Payne that he would not act “to support any particular or special group of any kind.”

The moment – which occurred just two months after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling – sparked the headline in the Washington Evening Star: “President Annoyed by Query On Travel Race Ban Support.”

Ms. Dunnigan repeatedly asked Eisenhower about segregated schools on military bases in the south, as well as the president’s overall support of civil rights legislation.

He eventually stopped calling on the two women at his press conferences.

As one of the first ten reporters to be recognized by President John F. Kennedy at his first press conference in 1961, Ms. Dunnigan asked about Black sharecroppers who were being evicted from their land in Tennessee simply for registering to vote. Jet Magazine reported it was the first time Ms. Dunnigan had been called on in two years.

“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.”

The WHCA board voted to approve the creation of the Dunnigan-Payne Prize in January 2022. Portnoy credited board members Fin Gomez and Justin Sink, whom he said were key to the efforts to bring the honor to fruition.

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