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 Franklin 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.