By Lesley Clark, McClatchy Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — Harry S. McAlpin made history in February 1944 when he became the first black reporter to cover a presidential news conference at the White House.
Time magazine and The New York Times noted the milestone. And Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who’d opened the White House doors after entreaties from African-American publishers, greeted the reporter as he made his way over to the president’s desk, telling him, “Glad to see you, McAlpin.”
It was not a sentiment shared by McAlpin’s fellow scribes, members of the White House Correspondents’ Association who for a decade had denied black reporters the opportunity to attend the twice-weekly news conferences in the Oval Office.
Roosevelt’s invite did nothing to deter them. A member of the association told McAlpin he’d share notes from the news conference with him if he didn’t attend, suggesting that in the crush of reporters moving into the room someone could get hurt.
McAlpin “ever so politely declined the offer,” and stepping into the White House broke the color barrier, said George Condon, a White House correspondent for the National Journal and a former White House Correspondents’ Association president who’s researching the group’s sometimes-checkered history in celebration of its centennial this year.
Now, some 70 years after doing all it could to block black reporters, the White House Correspondents’ Association is looking to make amends, dedicating a scholarship for journalism students in McAlpin’s name.
McAlpin, who died in 1985, will be honored at the association’s annual scholarship dinner on May 3.
“Harry McAlpin was a remarkable man. We honor his role as the first black reporter to cover a presidential press conference. And we acknowledge that he did that in spite of opposition from the White House Correspondents’ Association of the time,” said Steven Thomma, the current association president and McClatchy’s government and politics editor. “Thanks to the work of Harry McAlpin, and men and women in the decades that followed, the White House press corps and the White House Correspondents’ Association is a diverse chorus of faces and voices. The country is better for it.”
McAlpin’s son, Sherman, calls his father’s history-making stint at the White House just one facet of a life well-lived, including serving as the president of the NAACP chapter in Louisville, Ky.
“He has been and continues to be my hero,” Sherman McAlpin, who works for the Department of the Navy, said of his father. “If I accomplished one-tenth of what he accomplished in his life, I would be a total success.”
Discrimination was a persistent factor for McAlpin, his son said. The elder McAlpin wanted to be a journalist and study at the University of Missouri, but he was barred because of his race. He ended up at the University of Wisconsin.
Similarly, it was a “hard road to try to get a black person into the White House correspondents’ circle,” Sherman McAlpin said. His father told him he was warned that at the White House news conference “someone might step on your foot” and a row would ensue.
Not missing a beat, McAlpin said, his father had replied: “I always thought the White House press would be the cream of the crop. I can’t imagine that would happen. But if it did, it would be the story of the year and I wouldn’t want to miss it.’ ”
Admittance to the White House came only after a decade of pressure from black newspaper publishers and editors, who began making a case for attendance in 1933, Condon said.
The White House Correspondents’ Association, which served as the gatekeeper to the events, denied entreaties from black publications, often responding with nothing but silence.
There was some justification for restricting access. More than 200 reporters jostled to attend and the room could get crowded, Condon said. Admission was restricted to reporters for daily newspapers, and most of the black publications, including McAlpin’s Chicago Defender, were weeklies.