Black Women Journalists Honored By Cassiette West-Williams

They were not forgotten, cast aside, or ignored. Two pioneering African American women of journalism were recently honored for their numerous contributions to international and national reporting during their era. From the mid-1940s until the early 1980s). The late Illinois-born Ethel L. Payne and Kentucky-born Alice Allison Dunnigan received posthumous honors from the White House Correspondents Association (WHCA).  The organization established the Dunnigan-Payne Prize for Lifetime Achievement. The ladies were named as the first awardees. CBS’ Gayle King presented the awards to the living relatives of both news reporters.

Alice Allison Dunnigan
Ethel L. Payne

Both women wrote for the daily Chicago Defender newspaper, as well as other news organizations, but they are not well known. Ethel L. Payne was featured and commissioned on a United States stamp in 2002. The stamp was .37 cents and the United States postal service retired it a year later. Dunnigan’s legacy is remembered with a traveling, bronze monument in November 2018. The statue is in Russellville, Kentucky, in a park named in her honor.

Ethel L. Payne’s Background and career: Born on the South Side of Chicago, Payne was one of six children born to Bessie and William Payne. Her father worked as a Pullman Porter and died when she was 12 years old. Her mother rented rooms in her home to make ends meet. 

In 1948, Payne worked in the Army Special Services club in Japan and wrote observations in her journal about how U.S. troops were poorly treated. She shared her diary entries with a colleague and relayed the quality of her work to the Chicago Defender in 1951. The Defender was published daily and was ranked the number one Black-owned newspaper in the country.  Payne was credited for making the circulation increase with her war stories about Black troops in Korea. She was credited as the first Black woman member of the White House Press Corps. She was known as the reporter who got under President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s skin, by asking questions that were race-related, regarding Brown vs. The Board of Education and other topics in 1954. She left the Defender in 1978.

Payne was also the first Black woman to report her stories on CBS television for 10 years (1972-1982).  She also worked as a professor at Fisk University. She died from a heart attack in1991. 

Alice Allison Dunnigan’s Background and extensive career: Dunnigan was born in 1906, close to Russellville, Kentucky, where her family owned their own land. She was tri-racial (Black, white, and Native American). She wrote two books, including her autobiography. Dunnigan’s parents were sharecroppers. Her writing was first published when she was merely 13 years old. After graduating from high school, she became a teacher and wrote a book. She transferred jobs and worked for the government in various positions. She returned to writing full-time for the Chicago Defender in 1946. She was given a lower salary for the stories she produced because she was a woman.

Dunnigan was the first Black woman to sit in the Senate and House of Representatives as a reporter. She also wrote for the Associated Negro Press, between 1947 to 1961. Like her colleague, Payne, she asked Eisenhower piercing questions, and in return, he stopped acknowledging her at press conferences for two years.

Dunnigan then took a position with President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration and left that job when President Richard M. Nixon won the election in 1968. She earned more than 50 journalism awards She died in Washington, D.C. from disease in 1983.

Without assistance or mentorship, these women paved the way for Black journalists to be seen in the press room of the nation’s capital. So many women and men owe a debt of gratitude to Payne and Dunnigan for their careers.