|Members of Alice Allison Dunnigan's family pose with her statue in Russellville, Kentucky, after its dedication Friday.|
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues
University of Kentucky
In a little park amid the main intersection in downtown
Russellville, Kentucky, stands a monument to the Confederate dead of Logan
County, which borders Tennessee and before the Civil War had an economy based
on slavery. No one pays much attention to the monument and its statue of a
soldier anymore; business in the town of 7,000 no longer revolves around the square
at Fourth and Main.
Six blocks away, much more attention is being paid to a newer and more remarkable statue, of an African American woman who rose from poverty
in Logan County to become the first black woman accredited as a journalist
to the White House and Congress: Alice Allison Dunnigan, who died in 1983.
The statue was dedicated Friday at its new home, the Struggles
for Emancipation and Equality in Kentucky (SEEK) Museum
, which occupies several
lots and buildings in the heart of Russellville’s main African American neighborhood.
A new walk running diagonally from the corner of Morgan and Sixth leads to the
bronze of Dunnigan, looking up from a copy of The Washington Post
and seeming ready
to ask a sharp question.
|Photo by Amanda Matthews, sculptor|
Sculptor Amanda Matthews “captured the true essence of
Alice: her determination, her grace, her love for journalism and her love for
people,” said Deborah Catchings-Smith, president of the Sigma Gamma Rho
and vice president of operational risk management governance at Citibank
Dunnigan became Washington bureau chief of the American
Negro Press in 1947 and was the first black journalist to travel with a
president, on Harry S. Truman’s whistle-stop campaign in 1948.
Sonya Ross, who was the first black woman to cover the White
House for The Associated Press
, told the crowd at the dedication, “I have been
able to have the amazing career I’ve had because Alice Dunnigan had the audacity
to believe in all possibilities for herself, and by extension, all black people
and all women, and in particular black women.”
Another female African American journalist, Zirconia Alleyne,
the editor of the Kentucky New Era
at nearby Hopkinsville, emceed the event. “The
more I learn about Ms. Alice Allison Dunnigan, the more inspired I am,” she
said after Dunnigan’s oldest grandchild, Alicia Dunnigan, gave her biography.
“She used her position as a journalist and political connections
to expose injustice and discrimination and keep these uncomfortable issues
before the public, the nation and the political establishment of the country,”
Dunnigan said. “She was an amazing woman, not afraid to speak truth to power.”
She said President Eisenhower ignored her “because of her
tough questions on civil-rights issues” but President Kennedy called on her,
and she asked whether his administration was going to do anything for some tenant
farmers in Tennessee “who had been evicted from their homes because they had
dared to vote in the last election and were forced to live in tents.”
A few months later, the farmers got relief from the Justice
Department, Dunnigan said. Later in 1961, her grandmother became education
consultant of the President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity and
worked in government until she retired.
Alicia Dunnigan remembered her grandmother as “strong, intelligent,
hard-working, persistent – some would say stubborn” and someone who “cooked delicious
Southern meals,” drank bloody Marys and smoked a pipe.
|Sonya Ross delivers the keynote address. (Photos by Al Cross)|
Ross said, “In some folks’ mind, black girls like Alice do
not have what it takes to be a bona fide American hero. Essentially, if they
come from tucked-away places, if they start life with virtually nothing, if
they live life with virtually nothing, and leave here wrapped in invisibility.
The truth is, Alice Dunnigan was a bona fide American hero.”
Beneath towering shade trees on a hot, sunny day, Ross said,
“This is indeed just a beautiful moment. Do you all feel like, this palpable,
amazing love? . . . I see why she had so much moxie. This town has moxie.”
The gathering, which attracted people from hundreds of miles away, was a product of the SEEK Museum
and Historic Russellville Inc., led by lawyer J. Gran Clark. He said it got the
money for the statue from the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation
by the founder of E.R. Carpenter Co.
, which has made polyurethane foam in the town
for 50 years.
Clark told the crowd, “There are a lot of people that care
about this, that recognize that we have a shared history, racially, and it’s something
that needs to be talked about, and learned, and digested.”
He said Southern writer John Edge compares the history of
slavery to the game of Whack-a-Mole: “That’s what the South has always done
about the history of slavery: It comes up, you knock it down. You never deal
with it; you never address it. It never gets to stay on the surface.
|Emcee Zirconia Alleyne and civic leader J. Gran Clark|
“So what we’re
hoping to do is not just slavery, but our whole American history of race
relations, to let it come up, to take that history that’s been hidden and buried,
and share it, learn from it, and hopefully get to be better people and better communities.”
For some, the event had present-day currency. “President
Eisenhower put Alice on mute for two years,” Ross said, “and today President
Trump tries to put our sister journalists on mute for doing their job of
questioning his authority.”
Catchings-Smith said that Dunnigan were here today she would
say “Supporting the Fourth Estate does not reflect political bias, but rather
is our right under the United States Constitution to have freedom of thought and
expression. . . . She understood very well that without a free press, individual
freedoms are at risk. She understood that ethical journalism and freedom of thought
and expression are essential to our very own democracy.”