The start to Women’s History Month is just the beginning of our year-round observance of all the amazing women – past and present – who have fought to break down barriers.
This month let’s focus on the history – past and recent – of Kentucky by celebrating the life and work of Alice Allison Dunnigan (April 27, 1906 - May 6, 1983), who won over 50 awards in journalism during her lifetime.
During her career, she was the first Black woman to write as a White House correspondent, and the first Black woman to serve as a member of the Senate and House press galleries.
Her desire to effect societal change for justice spanned her entire life.
Upon graduating from high school, she began her first job as a teacher and noticed her students had no knowledge of Black history. To remedy this, she supplemented the curriculum for her students with Black history worksheets which she prepared herself, beginning a lifelong collection of facts and information about Black history in the commonwealth of Kentucky.
After she changed careers to become a journalist, she continued collecting this history throughout her life, finally publishing The Fascinating Story of Black Kentuckians: Their Heritage and Tradition in 1982, a year before her death.
During her journalist career, she focused on exposing the impact of Jim Crow laws on Black communities during the 1940s and 50s. Throughout her work, she frequently experienced racist segregation policies, such as in 1948 when she was barred from covering a speech by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in a whites-only theater. Despite these many racist barriers, she did not shy away from addressing issues of race head-on with politicians, and as a part of the White House press corps, often asked questions about desegregation and racial justice.
While Dunnigan experienced racism outside the newsroom, she also dealt with sexism from within it. She was paid much less than her male colleagues, and her abilities were often doubted by her editors. When she initially sought press credentials to cover Congress, she was denied.
Throughout all this, she continued to name and expose racial injustice through her writing, and in 1947 she was named Bureau Chief of the Associate Negro Press.
In 1960, she was selected as the education consultant of the President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity by President John F. Kennedy, a position she served for five years. With the election of Richard Nixon in 1968, Dunnigan's position ended as Republicans took power, and she turned to writing an autobiography: A Black Woman’s Experience: From Schoolhouse to White House (This book was republished in 2015 under the title Alone Atop of the Hill: The Autobiography of Alice Dunnigan, Pioneer of the National Black Press).
Dunnigan's work – breaking barriers of race and sex in journalism, documenting Black history – created justice and change in her lifetime, and beyond it.
As a monument to her legacy, she has been memorialized in a life-size bronze statue portrait at the Alice Dunnigan Memorial Park in Russellville, Kentucky.
We honor the present by celebrating the work of Keturah Heron, a policy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky.
Following the murder of Breonna Taylor, a Black medical worker who was killed by police in her home, Heron shifted the focus of her work from the state level to the local level and began lobbying in Louisville for an end to the no-knock policy.
A no-knock policy refers to a type of warrant that does not require police to notify residents of their presence before entering a dwelling.
Police used this type of warrant to enter Breonna’s home forcefully and abruptly, killing her. (The details of Breonna’s murder are linked, with a content warning, for those who wish to know more).
Herron knew that the elimination of no-knock warrants could prevent future murders at the hands of law enforcement, so she set to work over the course of several months, with hundreds of phone calls, text messages and virtual meetings with council members.
Thanks in large part to Herron’s work, on June 11, 2020, the Louisville city council passed the ordinance that would ban no-knock warrants. The ordinance is now popularly known as Breonna’s Law.
Although there is a much more work to be done in order to stop police from killing Black people, dismantling one avenue used to enact racist violence is a positive step forward, and one that will save lives.