#TBT: How Harry McAlpin Broke the White House Press Corps Color Barrier

By Sameer Rao Feb 08, 2018

Eight decades ago, the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) needed no help from the president to make Black journalists feel unwelcome—it just barred them from press briefings. That all changed on this day (February 8) in 1944, when Harry S. McAlpin became the first Black reporter to cover a presidential press conference. 

According to a 2014 profile from National Journal, the St. Louis native graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1926, then moved to Washington D.C. to work at The Washington Tribune, a weekly newspaper for the city’s Black community. His entry in the Kentucky African American Encyclopedia notes that he earned a law degree from the now-defunct Robert H. Terrell Law School in 1933 and left media for a decade to work in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Office of Negro Affairs. National Journal reported that he returned to journalism in 1942 to cover the federal government for the Chicago Defender, another Black weekly.

National Journal writes that the White male-dominated WHCA cited the Defender’s weekly publication schedule as justification to keep McAlpin out of press conferences. After lobbying from the National Negro Publishers Association (now the National Newspaper Publishers Association), Roosevelt and White House press secretary Steve Early finally credentialed McAlpin to report for both the association and the Atlanta Daily World—one of few Black daily publications in operation at the time.

Still, the president’s approval did not stop the WHCA from trying to sideline McAlpin. National Journal included this excerpt from an unpublished autobiography in which McAlpin shared a tense conversation with WHCA president Paul Wooton: 

"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]!"

McAlpin went on to cover the Roosevelt and Harry Truman administrations until 1945, when he moved to Louisville to practice law and head the local NAACP chapter. McAlpin died in 1985 without ever being admitted into the WHCA.

The press organization reversed its public opinion of McAlpin in 2014, when it introduced the Harry S. McAlpin Jr. Scholarship for Black aspiring collegiate journalists.