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
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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.”

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.

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