Harry McAlpin vs. the White House Press Corps

Until 1944, African-Americans were excluded from presidential press conferences. Meet the reporter who changed that.

Reporter Harry McAlpin leaving the White House after a press conference.  
Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image
George E. Condon Jr.
May 1, 2014, 5 p.m.

Cer­tainly, Harry Mc­Alpin didn’t look threat­en­ing. Ac­cord­ing to his Secret Ser­vice back­ground re­port, he was, at age 38, only 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighed just 148 pounds, with brown eyes, black hair, and a me­di­um build. He was also soft spoken and un­fail­ingly po­lite.

Yet to the re­port­ers who ran the White House Cor­res­pond­ents’ As­so­ci­ation in 1944, he loomed large. To them, Mc­Alpin was a threat, for he was not one of them: He was not white. And that one dif­fer­ence was enough to make the white journ­al­ism es­tab­lish­ment battle to pre­vent Mc­Alpin from at­tend­ing White House press con­fer­ences. Even after Pres­id­ent Roosevelt over­ruled the Cor­res­pond­ents’ As­so­ci­ation and Mc­Alpin be­came the first Afric­an-Amer­ic­an re­port­er to cov­er a pres­id­en­tial press con­fer­ence, the group con­tin­ued to un­der­mine him. It re­mained totally un­re­pent­ant.

Un­til today. Sev­enty years after Roosevelt’s de­cision and al­most three dec­ades after Mc­Alpin’s death, we at the White House Cor­res­pond­ents’ As­so­ci­ation are us­ing this week’s an­nu­al din­ner to say we are sorry. WHCA Pres­id­ent Steve Thomma will an­nounce the cre­ation of a schol­ar­ship named after Mc­Alpin. And he will in­tro­duce his son, Sher­man Mc­Alpin, to Pres­id­ent Obama — who, as the na­tion’s first Afric­an-Amer­ic­an pres­id­ent, dram­at­izes just how much things have changed since Harry Mc­Alpin was fight­ing the es­tab­lish­ment in the 1940s.

That fight was not something I ex­pec­ted to find when I star­ted re­search­ing the his­tory of the White House Cor­res­pond­ents’ As­so­ci­ation in pre­par­a­tion for writ­ing a book on the group and for com­mem­or­at­ing its centen­ni­al this year. I thought I would fo­cus on 100 years of pres­id­ents and their deal­ings with the gi­ants of Wash­ing­ton journ­al­ism. In­stead, as I read about Mc­Alpin, I found my­self drawn to the story of a man who is little more than a foot­note — if that — in books about White House press re­la­tions. As a former pres­id­ent of the WHCA, I sug­ges­ted that we keep Mc­Alpin’s memory alive by nam­ing a schol­ar­ship after him.

Such re­cog­ni­tion has been a long time com­ing for a man who fought for his com­munity on sev­er­al fronts. The re­port­ers who called the shots at the White House were not the first to put road­b­locks in front of him. Mc­Alpin was a St. Louis nat­ive whose dream of study­ing journ­al­ism at the Uni­versity of Mis­souri was blocked by the school’s all-white policies, for­cing him, in­stead, to at­tend the Uni­versity of Wis­con­sin. Upon gradu­ation in 1926, he went to Wash­ing­ton as a re­port­er and city ed­it­or for the Wash­ing­ton Tribune, which was then in its fifth year as a weekly pa­per serving the city’s black com­munity. After tak­ing a break from journ­al­ism while get­ting his law de­gree and work­ing at oth­er jobs, Mc­Alpin re­turned to re­port­ing in 1942, cov­er­ing Wash­ing­ton for the Chica­go De­fend­er, an Afric­an-Amer­ic­an news­pa­per.

He soon found him­self in the middle of an on­go­ing battle. For years after FDR’s in­aug­ur­a­tion in 1933, the ed­it­ors and pub­lish­ers of the na­tion’s black press had fought to get one of their re­port­ers in­to the pres­id­ent’s twice-weekly press con­fer­ences. A file in the FDR Lib­rary is filled with re­quests from the black press and re­jec­tions by the White House Cor­res­pond­ents’ As­so­ci­ation.

It was es­tim­ated that close to 5 mil­lion Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans — more than half the total black pop­u­la­tion over age 14 — read a black news­pa­per each week. But with the ex­cep­tion of the At­lanta Daily World, all the pa­pers were weeklies. And that was the WHCA’s ra­tionale for keep­ing them out. The cor­res­pond­ents were not wrong to lim­it at­tend­ance to dailies — at times, more than 400 re­port­ers were jammed in­to the Oval Of­fice for press con­fer­ences, mak­ing them un­bear­ably over­crowded. But they looked the oth­er way when ex­cep­tions were made to let in some oth­er weeklies. Only for Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans would they per­mit no ex­cep­tions. In a 2002 pa­per chron­ic­ling the battle, Earn­est Perry Jr., then a journ­al­ism pro­fess­or at Texas Chris­ti­an Uni­versity, wrote that the Cor­res­pond­ents’ As­so­ci­ation con­fron­ted the black press with “a more overt form of ra­cism” than any­thing they saw from White House of­fi­cials. His­tor­i­an Betty Houchin Win­field noted that the WHCA had be­come “an ex­clus­ive fraternal club” with “def­in­ite ad­mis­sion re­quire­ments and un­writ­ten codes, in­clud­ing ‘no blacks ad­mit­ted.’ “

Things star­ted to slowly change in 1943. On May 26, Ed­win Barclay, the pres­id­ent of Liber­ia, be­came the first black head of state to vis­it the White House. The vis­it shook up the town. (One of FDR’s aides even urged the pres­id­ent to clean White House toi­lets with Lysol out of fear that Afric­an men car­ried vener­eal dis­ease. The pres­id­ent did not take the ad­vice.) Mc­Alpin chron­icled all the his­tor­ic firsts in his stor­ies for the Chica­go De­fend­er, not­ing that “ol’ man Jim Crow took a ter­rif­ic lick­ing” dur­ing the vis­it and that Barclay “wrote a page in his­tory by be­ing the first Negro to stay overnight as a guest in the White House.” He was also the first black speak­er to ad­dress a joint meet­ing of Con­gress. “Through the State De­part­ment, doors opened for him which had nev­er opened for Negroes be­fore,” Mc­Alpin wrote. “And be­cause Wash­ing­ton was on its best be­ha­vi­or, his pres­ence opened doors for oth­er Negroes which had been sealed tightly hitherto — as in the White House and the House press gal­lery where Negro cor­res­pond­ents were al­lowed for the first time.”

More doors were soon to open as well. In Novem­ber 1943, black ed­it­ors and pub­lish­ers began meet­ing with White House press sec­ret­ary Steve Early to work out the cre­den­tial­ing of a black cor­res­pond­ent. The lob­by­ing to get an Afric­an-Amer­ic­an re­port­er in­to press con­fer­ences had in­tens­i­fied in 1940, but it wasn’t un­til late 1943 that the ed­it­ors ral­lied be­hind Mc­Alpin. By Jan. 18, 1944, it had been worked out that he would re­quest ac­cred­it­a­tion for both the Na­tion­al Negro Pub­lish­ers As­so­ci­ation and the At­lanta Daily World — fi­nally meet­ing the “daily” re­quire­ment. On Jan. 26, the Treas­ury De­part­ment gave the White House the res­ults of a Secret Ser­vice in­vest­ig­a­tion of Mc­Alpin. The worst in­vest­ig­at­ors could find on him oth­er than “three minor traffic vi­ol­a­tions” was that on Oct. 16, 1942, Mc­Alpin had spoken at what the D.C. po­lice con­sidered a sus­pi­cious meet­ing at Lin­coln Con­greg­a­tion­al Church. The meet­ing was called “to plan strategy for elim­in­a­tion of Jim Crow in the Dis­trict of Columbia and vi­cin­ity, par­tic­u­larly in the field of ath­let­ics. More par­tic­u­larly, they hope to elim­in­ate Jim Crow­ism in or­gan­ized ma­jor league base­ball.” On Feb. 4, Mc­Alpin was cleared for his White House pass.

All that was left was for Roosevelt to weigh in, be­cause he was the only one who could over­rule the Cor­res­pond­ents’ As­so­ci­ation. On Feb. 5, the pres­id­ent met with 13 ed­it­ors and pub­lish­ers from the NNPA. It is hard to over­state the sig­ni­fic­ance of this meet­ing. His­tor­i­an Patrick Wash­burn said it was the first group of black ed­it­ors in U.S. his­tory to meet with a pres­id­ent. The ed­it­ors read a 21-point mani­festo “for as­sur­ing the Negro first-class cit­izen­ship,” ac­cord­ing to one par­ti­cipant. At one point, they told the pres­id­ent they “des­per­ately” were try­ing to get a re­port­er in­to his press con­fer­ences. Roosevelt asked sev­er­al ques­tions be­fore say­ing, “Well, you’ll have a rep­res­ent­at­ive ac­cred­ited to the White House.”

And that was that. After more than a dec­ade of ar­gu­ments and lob­by­ing and res­ist­ance, an Afric­an-Amer­ic­an re­port­er would at­tend a pres­id­en­tial press con­fer­ence for the first time only three days later. The man mak­ing his­tory would be Harry Mc­Alpin. But as he would quickly learn, just be­cause the pres­id­ent of the United States had in­vited him did not mean the white cor­res­pond­ents would wel­come him.

He found that out when he was summoned on Monday — the day be­fore the sched­uled press con­fer­ence and the day he re­ceived his White House cre­den­tials — to the of­fice of Paul Wooton, the pres­id­ent of the Cor­res­pond­ents’ As­so­ci­ation. A Wash­ing­ton re­port­er since 1911, Wooton was a long­time cham­pi­on of keep­ing the press corps all-white. Mc­Alpin’s un­pub­lished mem­oir, which he shared with Wash­burn, de­scribes his ex­change with Wooton, who was a re­port­er for The Times-Pi­cay­une in New Or­leans:

“Harry, you have been ac­cred­ited as a White House cor­res­pond­ent by Pres­id­ent Roosevelt and there is noth­ing we can do about that. But I asked you to come in be­cause I be­lieved we could ar­rive at some agree­ment in con­nec­tion with your at­tend­ing the pres­id­ent’s press con­fer­ence. We are anxious to co­oper­ate with you in every way pos­sible.

“Now, I sug­gest that when you come down to­mor­row, you sit out in the re­cep­tion hall. One of us reg­u­lar cor­res­pond­ents will be glad to tell you what went on in the con­fer­ence as soon as it is over. And, of course, if you have any ques­tion you would like to have asked, if you would let one of us know about it, we’d ask it for you and as soon as the con­fer­ence is over, we’d let you know what an­swer the pres­id­ent gave.

“Now the reas­on I made these sug­ges­tions is be­cause there is al­ways a large crowd at the con­fer­ences. They gang up to the cor­ridor lead­ing to the pres­id­ent’s of­fice, and when the sig­nal is giv­en to enter, there is a grand rush. It’s pos­sible that you might step on someone’s foot in the rush “¦ and there would be a ri­ot right in the White House.”

While I was seeth­ing in­side, I listened with an out­ward calmness to this sug­ges­tion. Then I said: “I’m some­what sur­prised at what you have said, Paul (it was prob­ably the first time he had ever been ad­dressed by a Negro us­ing his first name). I have al­ways had the im­pres­sion that the men who reached the pin­nacle of the re­port­ing pro­fes­sion by be­com­ing White House cor­res­pond­ents were the cream of the crop of journ­al­ism. I’d be sur­prised if any of them should start a ri­ot in the White House be­cause someone in­ad­vert­ently stepped on his foot, but if they did it would be one of the biggest stor­ies of the year and I’ll be damned if I’d want to miss it. Thanks for the sug­ges­tion, but I’ll take my chances. I’ll be go­ing in to get my own stor­ies and to ask my ques­tions my­self.” “¦

As I left his of­fice, I said to my­self, “Well, they’re still at it. White folks won’t let me for­get [that I’m black]!”

The next morn­ing, Mc­Alpin was at the White House. But the slights con­tin­ued. While it was stand­ard prac­tice for the pres­id­ent of the WHCA to in­tro­duce new­comers to the pres­id­ent, Wooton did not in­tro­duce Mc­Alpin. Not that Roosevelt needed someone else to tell him that, for the first time, a black re­port­er was in the room. When the ses­sion ended, Mc­Alpin later re­called, Roosevelt “smiled warmly, stuck out his hand, and said, ‘I’m glad to see you, Mc­Alpin, and very happy to have you here.’ ” Mc­Alpin later wrote in a column that the pres­id­ent “put me en­tirely at ease with his mag­net­ic per­son­al­ity with that brief but warm greet­ing.”

Mc­Alpin was fully aware of the his­tory he had made. “Its sig­ni­fic­ance can­not be em­phas­ized too much,” he wrote later. “From this source has come and will come some of the most start­ling and world-shak­ing news. That the colored press is now in at the source of such news with the priv­ilege of ask­ing ques­tions, too, is a step for­ward without par­al­lel in the 117-year his­tory of our news­pa­pers.”

It was Mc­Alpin’s ar­dent wish to blend in. “I didn’t want to ap­pear any dif­fer­ent from any of the oth­er cor­res­pond­ents cov­er­ing the White House,” he told Early. But the white es­tab­lish­ment run­ning the Cor­res­pond­ents’ As­so­ci­ation was not ready to ac­cept de­feat. Go­ing for­ward, the group would re­fuse to of­fer WHCA mem­ber­ship to Mc­Alpin. And on that first day, of the 60 cor­res­pond­ents near him in the wait­ing room be­fore the press con­fer­ence, he said “only two of them came over to where I sat.”

Mc­Alpin did not cri­ti­cize the oth­ers, call­ing this “nat­ur­al. No one knew me. I had no spon­sor. I pre­ferred it that way, go­ing in on my own and get­ting the nat­ur­al re­ac­tions. I was there for busi­ness and so were they. They were chat­ting with friends — I hadn’t made any yet.”

When he came back three days later for his second press con­fer­ence, he ac­know­ledged that “the icy ‘new­ness’ of my be­ing there had not worn off.” He was grate­ful when “a charm­ing mem­ber of the fe­male con­tin­gent of White House cor­res­pond­ents” came over and in­tro­duced him to some oth­ers. To his re­lief, he wrote, “every in­tro­duc­tion was gra­ciously ac­cep­ted, and no one turned or ran away im­me­di­ately.” Mc­Alpin ad­ded that this wo­man con­tin­ued to in­tro­duce him to more col­leagues at the next five press con­fer­ences. “I have yet to meet one who hasn’t proved to be a gen­tle­man or a lady. Some of them prob­ably are learn­ing for the first time that it is pos­sible to meet a Negro on a plane of equal­ity and not have the world come tum­bling down.” But Mc­Alpin was sur­prised to learn later that the wo­man mak­ing the in­tro­duc­tions was the Wash­ing­ton cor­res­pond­ent for the So­viet news agency TASS.

Yet an­oth­er bit of his­tory was made that sum­mer when Mc­Alpin was giv­en a seat on the spe­cial all-Pull­man train ar­ranged to take re­port­ers from Wash­ing­ton to the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Con­ven­tion in Chica­go. “It turned out that I was the only colored Amer­ic­an on the whole train as a pas­sen­ger,” Mc­Alpin wrote in a column in which he re­por­ted sit­ting in the lounge car drink­ing with oth­er re­port­ers and ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials. “It’s pe­cu­li­ar (or is it) how one brown face stands out so in a sea of white ones.”

The white journ­al­ism es­tab­lish­ment that tried to block such firsts came in for heavy cri­ti­cism in the black press of the day. “Thanks to the pres­id­ent, col­or dis­crim­in­a­tion which had been im­posed on the press at the White House and Cap­it­ol has been broken down,” ed­it­or­i­al­ized the Bal­timore Afro-Amer­ic­an. “It is a re­flec­tion upon the white press that it was not fair and de­cent enough to do it without be­ing forced.”

When Roosevelt died in 1945, his fu­ner­al ar­range­ments quickly be­came en­snared in the same ra­cial di­vi­sions that the fallen pres­id­ent had over­ruled a year earli­er. At the heart of the dis­pute was the press pool that would be cov­er­ing the me­mori­al ser­vice in the East Room. Be­cause the room was too small to hold many re­port­ers, they fought over who would be in­side. That was enough to re­ignite the sim­mer­ing dis­pute over race.

The White House de­creed that Mc­Alpin should be one of the re­port­ers in the East Room. But, sud­denly, his name was dropped from the list, prompt­ing Mc­Alpin to write: “Be­fore Pres­id­ent Roosevelt’s body could be rev­er­ently placed un­der­ground, some of the forces he held in check by his cour­age, per­son­al­ity and in­sist­ence on what is right were flar­ing up anew. The White House Cor­res­pond­ents’ As­so­ci­ation, which con­trols news gath­er­ing at the White House and which has nev­er ac­cep­ted in­to mem­ber­ship the only Negro White House cor­res­pond­ent, ex­cluded that Negro from the fu­ner­al ser­vices for the de­ceased pres­id­ent in the East Room.” For­tu­nately, the White House re­solved the situ­ation by in­creas­ing the pool to 13, put­ting Mc­Alpin back on the list.

Years later, Mc­Alpin was able to laugh about the ex­per­i­ence, telling his son that he was such a good note-taker that the white re­port­ers huddled around him to get the com­plete story of what had happened dur­ing the fu­ner­al ser­vice. He was proud of that and proud of his pro­fes­sion­al­ism as a re­port­er. This pride even drove him in 1943 to sit down for an in­ter­view with Sen. Theodore Bilbo of Mis­sis­sippi, con­sidered the most openly ra­cist sen­at­or of the 20th cen­tury. Mc­Alpin felt he had to ex­plain to his read­ers why he had calmly listened to Bilbo’s hate. “You won­der how I took it,” he wrote. “Well, that’s one of the tough angles of be­ing a news­pa­per man.”

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4925) }}

By the end of 1945, Mc­Alpin had left journ­al­ism, mov­ing to Louis­ville, where he prac­ticed law and headed the loc­al chapter of the NAACP. In the 1950s, he ap­peared on Ed­ward R. Mur­row’s This I Be­lieve ra­dio show, out­lining his philo­sophy of life. He stated that his late fath­er had “ab­horred in­justice” and taught him that all men were cre­ated equal. “To live by these be­liefs, I have found it ne­ces­sary to de­vel­op pa­tience, to build cour­age, to pray for wis­dom,” he said.

Mc­Alpin, who died in 1985, left Wash­ing­ton nev­er hav­ing been in­vited to join the WHCA or at­tend the an­nu­al cor­res­pond­ents’ din­ner. On Sat­urday, Sher­man Mc­Alpin will do what Harry Mc­Alpin nev­er could — to the ap­plause of the pres­id­ent of the United States and the Cor­res­pond­ents’ As­so­ci­ation that battled his fath­er.

What We're Following See More »
Trump Won’t Debate Sanders After All
2 days ago

Trump, in a statement: “Based on the fact that the Democratic nominating process is totally rigged and Crooked Hillary Clinton and Deborah Wasserman Schultz will not allow Bernie Sanders to win, and now that I am the presumptive Republican nominee, it seems inappropriate that I would debate the second place finisher. ... I will wait to debate the first place finisher in the Democratic Party, probably Crooked Hillary Clinton, or whoever it may be.”

UAW: Time to Unite Behind Hillary
3 days ago

"It's about time for unity," said UAW President Dennis Williams. "We're endorsing Hillary Clinton. She's gotten 3 million more votes than Bernie, a million more votes than Donald Trump. She's our nominee." He called Sanders "a great friend of the UAW" while saying Trump "does not support the economic security of UAW families." Some 28 percent of UAW members indicated their support for Trump in an internal survey.

Trump Clinches Enough Delegates for the Nomination
4 days ago

"Donald Trump on Thursday reached the number of delegates needed to clinch the Republican nomination for president, completing an unlikely rise that has upended the political landscape and sets the stage for a bitter fall campaign. Trump was put over the top in the Associated Press delegate count by a small number of the party's unbound delegates who told the AP they would support him at the convention."

Trump/Sanders Debate Before California Primary?
4 days ago
California: It’s Not Over Yet
4 days ago

"Clinton and Bernie Sanders "are now devoting additional money to television advertising. A day after Sanders announced a new ad buy of less than $2 million in the state, Clinton announced her own television campaign. Ads featuring actor Morgan Freeman as well as labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta will air beginning on Fridayin Fresno, Sacramento, and Los Angeles media markets. Some ads will also target Latino voters and Asian American voters. The total value of the buy is about six figures according to the Clinton campaign." Meanwhile, a new poll shows Sanders within the margin of error, trailing Clinton 44%-46%.