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First Two Black Women Who Joined The White House Press Corps Set To Receive Lifetime Achievement Award

Alice Dunnigan and Ethel Payne, the first two Black women to be members of the White House press corps, are receiving the first-ever lifetime achievement award named after themselves. The inaugural Dunnigan-Payne Prize for Lifetime Career Achievement will be given at the White House  Correspondents’ Dinner in Washington on Saturday, CBS News reports. The families of Dunnigan and Payne will accept the honor on behalf of the two pioneers who died in 1983 and 1991. 

Dunnigan, the Kentucky-born granddaughter of slaves, had a regular column for a local paper when she was in her 30s. The Kentucky native, who faced hurdles as a Black female journalist, later found a job in Washington, D.C., writing for the Associated Negro Press, a wire service for Black-owned papers.

“She said the two strikes out against her was that she was Black and that she was female,” the journalist’s granddaughter, Alicia Dunnigan, told CBS News.

Dunnigan made history in 1947, becoming the first Black female reporter credentialed to cover the White House. 

Payne also persevered after she was denied admission to law school because she was Black.

“You couldn’t control your opportunities, so you had to be prepared for whatever opportunity came along. Writing, for her, was a natural, something she liked to do,” said Payne’s nephew, James Johnson Jr.

The trailblazer was hired as a Washington reporter for the Chicago Defender, a prominent Black newspaper, in 1951. Payne, who later became the first Black female commentator at CBS News, is also remembered for confronting President Dwight Eisenhower in 1954. The journalist asked the president he would support a ban on segregation in interstate travel. 

“I’d like to know if we could assume that we have administration support in getting action on this?” she asked. 

“Well, I don’t know what right you say that you have to have administration support. The administration is trying to do what it believes to be decent and just in this country,” Eisenhower responded.

Dunnigan and Payne paved the way for many more Black journalists that came after them.

“She knocked the door down,” Alicia Dunnigan said about her grandmother. “I marvel at all that she did, all that she was, and all that she fought for.” 

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