By Deborah Bailey
Seventy-eight years ago this month, the White press corps changed. Harry McAlpin became the first Black reporter to attend a White House press briefing in February 1944.
Born in St. Louis, Mo., in July, 1906, McAlpin studied journalism at the University of Wisconsin and pursued the career. McAlpin worked for the Washington Tribune, an African-American weekly publication, where he served as reporter, editor, and office manager.
McAlpin also worked in public relations and advertising before joining the New Negro Alliance, a civil rights organization, in 1933. During this time, McAlpin also furthered his education and enrolled at The Robert U. Terrell Law School, an historically Black institution conferring law degrees in Washington, D.C. from 1931 to 1950.
McAlpin passed the bar exam in 1937 but remained a Washington correspondent for the Chicago Defender.
During this period in history, Black reporters were not permitted to attend White House briefings. But the National Negro Publishers Association (NNPA, now the National Newspaper Publishers Association) petitioned to obtain McAlpin’s White House credentials.
As McAlpin waited with his peers to enter the Oval Office on Feb. 8, 1944, his White colleagues became disgruntled and tried the same strategies then that too many African Americans experience now in corporate and executive settings: they tried to barter with him.
McAlpin’s peers promised they would share their notes and make sure he got the same story if he just wouldn’t go in the room. They would even make him a member of the White House Correspondents Association if he just didn’t go into the Oval Office for the press conference.
McAlpin walked into the Oval Office for the press conference with President Franklin D Roosevelt, who shook McAlpin’s hand afterwards, saying, “Harry, I’m glad you are here,” according to Blackpast.org. The New York Times covered the news of McAlpin’s first White House briefing.
“Harry McAlpin, the only Negro yet to be accredited as a White House correspondent, attended his first press conference today. He represents the Atlanta Daily World and the press service of the Negro Newspaper Publishers Association,” according to the 1944 article.
McAlpin went to Kentucky to practice law in the 1960’s before returning again to Washington, D.C., where he worked as a hearing examiner for the Social Security Administration and later as the first Black hearing examiner for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
McAlpin died on July 18, 1985, just before his 79th birthday. In April 2014, the White House Correspondents Association (WHCA) honored McAlpin posthumously and named a scholarship in his honor. Admitting their recognition was a little late in coming, George Condon, WHCA unofficial historian, said of McAlpin, “Harry McAlpin is someone who should be recognized and shouldn’t be forgotten.”
McAlpin was also recognized by Former President Barack Obama for being a pioneer in journalism.
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