When I was taking courses in journalism in college, I learned about women in the news but they were more modern-day women verses historical. Since March is National Women’s History Month, I wanted to honor some women that impacted the industry from the past. Some of the women are not as well-known while others are famous. Regardless, they left a mark on American journalism that is noteworthy because of their courage, self-determination and strength.
Published Stories on Lynchings
The first woman, Ida B. Wells, was a journalist I knew because of her bravery and doggedness in publishing the stories of lynchings. She was born a slave in 1862 in Mississippi. When the Civil War ended, Ida’s parents became politically active setting an example of activism and advocacy she would use later in life. They also believed in the importance of education. She became a teacher and moved to Memphis after her parents and one sibling died from yellow fever. Ida’s activism kicked off when she filed a lawsuit against a train car company in 1885for unfair treatment. She had been thrown off a first-class train despite having a ticket. Although she won the case locally, the ruling was later overturned in federal court.
After losing her teaching job Ida turned to journalism. In 1892 when three friends had been lynched by a mob, she began an editorial campaign against lynching. She was doubtful about the reasons Black men were lynched and set out to investigate several cases. She published her findings in a pamphlet and wrote several columns. Her exposure enraged locals, who burned her press and drove her from Memphis. Ida was passionate about highlighting lynchings that she traveled internationally. Abroad, she openly challenged white women in the suffrage movement who ignored lynching’s. Ida was often ridiculed and ostracized by women’s suffrage organizations in the United States because of her bold and fearless stance on the topic. Despite lack of support, Ida remained active in the women’s rights movement. She was a founder of the National Association of Colored Women’s Club which was created to address issues dealing with civil rights and women’s suffrage. Although she was in Niagara Falls for the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), her name is not mentioned as an official founder; but she later became a member of the executive committee. Disenchanted with their white and elite Black leadership, she soon distanced herself from the organization. Late in her career Ida focused on urban reform in Chicago. She died in 1931.
Poet and Journalist
The second woman was born shortly after the Civil War in New Orleans and later was actively involved in the Harlem Renaissance. Her name is Alice Dunbar Nelson and she was a poet, journalist and political activist. Her first collection of stories, poems and essays, Violets, and Other Tales, was published in 1895. She was married to the famous poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar and during their marriage she published a short-story collection, The Goodness of St. Rocque and Other Stories. This collection was published as a companion piece to his Poems of Cabin and Field in 1899. The volume helped establish her as a clever portrayer of Creole culture. The marriage didn’t last owing to abuse and alcoholism from her husband yet Alice continued to move forward in her writings and romantic life.
Alice was involved in the Harlem Renaissance, even though she hadn’t lived in New York for many years since before her marriage to Paul and was still living in Delaware at the time. Her poetry, much of it written earlier, was rediscovered through its appearance in journals and collections like The Crisis, Opportunity, Ebony and Topaz. She was also a journalist and wrote a syndicated column, Une Femme Dit, and contributed a wealth of reviews and essays to newspapers and magazines. During the 1920s, she coedited the Wilmington Advocate, a progressive Black newspaper. She also published The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer, a literary anthology. Although a successful writer, Alice spoke about her challenges as a journalist in her diary. She discussed being denied pay for her articles and issues she had with receiving proper recognition for her work. Her diary was published in 1984 and remains one of the few diaries of a 19th-century African-American woman. Alice died in 1935.
First to Receive White House Media Credentials
Alice Allison Dunnigan was the first Black woman credentialed to cover the White House, the Supreme Court, the State Department and Congress. Born in 1906 in Kentucky, Alice was a bright and smart student, and started writing for newspapers when she was only 13 years old. She began her career as a teacher, but wasn’t satisfied so took journalism classes and wrote fact sheets about information omitted in the school curriculum. Alice knew that to move forward she had to physically move so in 1935, she moved to Louisville. There she worked for Black-owned newspapers like the Louisville Defender. Next, she moved to the Capitol. Initially she worked for the federal government as a civil service worker but still had her eyes on journalism. In 1946 Alice’s ambitions were realized when she became a Washington, DC, correspondent for the Associated Negro Press (ANP), the first Black-owned wire service, supplying more than 100 newspapers nationwide. It was her ticket to covering national politics. She worked mightily on getting her press pass and was approved in 1947, and quickly acquired White House media credentials the following year.
Despite these major achievements Alice still dealt with racism and sexism in the work place. While covering President Truman and President Eisenhower, Alice experienced discrimination. She was one of three African Americans and one of two women in the press corps covering President Truman’s campaign. During her years of covering the White House, she frequently asked questions regarding the escalating civil rights movement. In 1953 Dunnigan was barred from covering a speech given by President Eisenhower in a whites-only theater and was forced to sit with the servants to cover Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft’s funeral. It was not until President Kennedy that she was recognized as a member of the press when asking questions. Under his administration, Alice began a new career as a consultant. President Kennedy appointed her to his Committee on Equal Opportunity designed to level the playing field for Americans seeking federal government jobs. After retiring, Alice self-published her autobiography, A Black Woman’s Experience: From Schoolhouse to White House. She died in 1983, and in 2013, was posthumously inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame.
First to Have Comics Syndicated Nationally
The next woman started off as a writer but was best known as a cartoonist. She was the first Black woman to have her comics syndicated nationally across America. Jackie Ormes, born in 1911, used her artistic talent to remark on political and social issues happening at the time. Her portrayal of positive Black folks went against long held stereotypical and negative images. Her first strip in the Pittsburg Courier, Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem, followed the adventures of Torchy Brown, a young ambitious Black teen who traveled from Mississippi to New York to pursue her dream of performing in the Big Apple. During the 1940s, Jackie worked as a columnist at the Chicago Defender and published her next cartoon strip, Candy, about a funny, hard-working and smart maid.
The Pittsburgh Courier published a new strip from Jackie after WWII called Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger. It centered around two sisters, Ginger, the older, stylish sister, and Patty Jo, the wisecracking, insightful little sister. The strip was so successful it ran for 11 years with more than 500 cartoons. In partnership with the Terri Lee Doll Company, Jackie created the Patty-Jo doll in 1947. This was the first nationally distributed high class Black doll that had real child-like features and an extensive, fashionable wardrobe. The dolls were extremely popular and the wish of many Black and white children. As the Civil Rights Movement grew, Jackie’s comic section was cut. She retired from cartooning and switched to painting. but later, Jackie had to stop painting entirely after developing rheumatoid arthritis. Still, she stayed active in the artist community through her seat on the board of directors of the Usable Museum of African-American History and Art. Jackie died from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1985. She was posthumously inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame in 2014.
Newspaper Owner and integrationist
Daisy Bates is a name I quickly recognized but not for her journalism background. Whenever I would read about Daisy it was her affiliation with the NAACP and how she advocated for integration with the Little Rock 9 in Arkansas. But before she got heavily involved in school integration, she married a newspaper man and they both ran the Arkansas State Press which focused on the need for social and economic improvements for the Black community. This paper became known for its courageous reporting of acts of police brutality against Black soldiers from a local army camp. Their persistence and drive in spotlighting these abuses led many white business owners to cease placing advertisements in their paper. Regardless of the financial loss, they continued to produce their publication. In 1959 they were forced to close the Arkansas State Press due to threats of racial violence. But Daisy reopened it in 1984 and sold it several years later. For many years Daisy continued her advocacy in education and civil rights involvement. For her work, the state of Arkansas proclaimed the third Monday in February, Daisy Gatson Bates Day. She died in 1999 and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Freedom the same year.
All of these women had incredible stories of tenacity, strength and power. As I researched each one there was so much rich history on their lives, I struggled with featuring just the highlights because there was so much more than what appears in this blog post. These women were wives, mothers, sisters, friends and held other roles in their community. These women battled racism, sexism and all kinds of challenges as they tried to do their work as journalists. They were excellent examples and believed deeply in the power of the written word and its impact on their community and society. Journalism was not just a routine 9-to-5 job but a way to evoke social and political change. I can definitely relate and is also a reason why I chose journalism and why I wanted to recognize them this month.