Pioneering Black Women in the White House.

Almost a century later, Alice Dunnigan and Ethel Payne are being honored in the same room where they were once overlooked as the first 2 Black women in the White House Press Corps. The Dunnigan-Payne lectern is a tribute to their perseverance through sexism and racism during their tenure.
By Erin Pedersen
Pioneering Black Women in the White house
Source 1: Left: Bettmann, via Getty Images. Right: via Alicia Dunnigan
Pioneering Black Women in the White house
Source 2: Pete Marovich for The New York Times

Pioneering Black Women in the White House Press Corps.

On November 30, 2023, Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre honored Alice Dunnigan and Ethel Payne, the first 2 black women in the White House press corps, by dedicating the White House Lectern in their name. The Dunnigan-Payne lectern and its seal were designed over the last year replacing the previous lectern that was used in the briefing room since 2007.

Source: The White House

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The Invisible Journalist?

Alice Dunnigan was the first Black woman to be credentialed to join the White House press corps. Her first news conference was with President Harry S. Truman, when she arrived an hour early she patiently waited in the lobby but was invisible to those around her. “If anyone wondered who I was or why I was there, they made no effort to find out” (Alice Dunnigan).


Source: The New York Times

Pioneering Black Women in the White house
Source 3: Dunnigan at her interview for the Black Women Oral History Project
Pioneering Black Women in the White house
Source 4: New Amsterdam News

First Woman of The Black Press.

Ethel Payne became known as the “first lady of the Black press” with her journalistic coverage on the civil rights movement. President Lyndon B. Johnson invited Payne to the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. “The white press was so busy asking questions on other issues that the blacks and their problems were completely ignored” (Ethel Payne).

Source: The New York Times

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The Weight of the Briefing Room.

Judy Smith, deputy press secretary for President George H.W. Bush, and the first Black woman to lead a White House press briefing, said the weight of the White House briefing room is felt by those who sit on both sides of the lectern. “Speaking from the podium, addressing critical issues that affect the country, and every single word you say is taken very seriously — it’s a tremendous responsibility” (Judy Smith). 

Source: The New York Times

Pioneering Black Women in the White house
Source 5: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Pioneering Black Women in the White house
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre speaks during a press briefing at the White House, Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023, in Washington. The White House unveiled a new lectern in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Recognition Almost a Century Later.

The briefing room lectern has become both a cultural and political artifact, standing as the focal point in a room accessible to only a privileged few and broadcasted for millions. More than 75 years later, Alice Dunnigan and Ethel Payne are being honored in the same room where they were once overlooked. The Dunnigan-Payne lectern is a tribute to their perseverance through sexism and racism during their tenure.

Source: The New York Times & AXIOS DC

“The White House lectern is a powerful symbol of freedom and democracy beamed around the world on a regular basis. I can’t think of two better people to be associated with that symbol than Alice and Ethel.”

– Karine Jean-Pierre, the first Black woman to serve as White House Press Secretary

Pioneering Black Women in the White House

Questions to Our Readers

How does learning about the hidden figures of history, especially the women, help us to strengthen our civil society?

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