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Alice Dunnigan, First Black Woman To Cover White House, Gets Statue At Newseum

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This week, the Newseum in Washington, D.C., welcomed a new resident...

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Unintelligible).

KELLY: ...A bronze statue of journalist Alice Dunnigan. She was the first black woman credentialed to cover the White House and Congress.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Sculptor Amanda Matthews based this statue on a 1947 photo of Dunnigan. She's standing on the steps of the Capitol and clutching a copy of The Washington Post.

AMANDA MATTHEWS: The wind is blowing. You can see it blowing her skirt and blowing the paper slightly. And she has on a big, floppy hat and signature dress and beautiful shoes that have a few scuffs here and there because she was very hardworking.

SHAPIRO: Matthews says that hard work is what inspired her to make this sculpture and bring Dunnigan's legacy to a wider audience.

MATTHEWS: The inspiration from what she accomplished and the drive that it took, the grit, the purpose, the vision - those are not only things that inspire me, but they are things that I'm honored to be a part of.

KELLY: Matthews was commissioned to do the statue by an education nonprofit in Dunnigan's hometown, Russellville, Ky. Dunnigan was born there in 1906. She started writing for her local paper when she was 13. During World War II, she moved to Washington. She became a typist. Soon she was writing for the Associated Negro Press, which served more than a hundred black papers around the country. Gran Clark heads the nonprofit Historic Russellville. He says Dunnigan persisted in the face of challenges that have not gone away.

GRAN CLARK: We unfortunately are still dealing with racism. We're dealing with gender discrimination. And now we're dealing with so many attacks on the press and the media. And she fought all of those.

SHAPIRO: As workers installed the statue on a balcony of the Newseum, down the hall, vice president of exhibits Patty Rhule shared her favorite anecdote about Dunnigan. By 1948, the journalist had worked her way up to be Washington bureau chief of the Associated Negro Press. And she wanted to follow President Harry Truman as he traveled the country on his re-election campaign, his famous whistle-stop tour.

PATTY RHULE: She went to her boss and said she wanted to take this opportunity to travel with the president, and her boss said, sure, you can do that. But I'm not going to fund it for you. So she raises her own money for this trip and goes along on the trip. And she's talking about how she's getting oranges and apples in the various places where they're left behind for her. She just refused to take no for an answer. She was going to do the job that she wanted to do, and she found a way to do it.

SHAPIRO: Rhule says she thinks about this history as she watches journalists today cover Dunnigan's former beat of Washington politics.

RHULE: Today people see White House reporters pushing back against the Trump administration's various claims to truth. And Alice was certainly a person who was speaking truth to power 60-some years ago.

KELLY: Alice Dunnigan officially retired in 1969. She died in 1983. Her statue is scheduled to be on display at the Newseum until at least December and eventually move onto its permanent home in Russellville, Ky. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.