By Senator Lena C. Taylor
I can frequently be heard touting the names Ezekiel Gillespie and Joshua Glover. Each man’s story represents Wisconsin’s progressive stance on voting rights and slavery, respectively. While not perfect, the Badger State was ahead of the country on key human rights issues. Well now, I have a new name to add to my list of instances when Wisconsin has played a pivotal role in Black History. Enter Harry McAlpin.
In 1922, as a recent high school grad, Harry McAlpin wanted to be a journalist. Raised in St. Louis, he applied to the University of Missouri. McAlpin was denied admission to the university because the school did not accept Black students. Undeterred, the aspiring writer submitted an application to the University of Wisconsin and was accepted. In four years, McAlpin graduated with a journalism degree and headed to Washington, D.C. to be a reporter with the Washington Tribune. At the time, Black reporters weren’t offered positions with white newspaper outlets. Papers like the Chicago Defender, Atlanta Daily World and the Tribune, hired, trained, and provided opportunities for the nation’s early Black reporters.
It is estimated that in 1940, some 5 million African Americans read a Black newspaper each week. Yet, editors of these publications could not get their reporters into policy briefings, legislative meetings or interviews with white elected officials. Decisions were being made, laws passed, and policies developed that impacted Black Americans, but they were relegated to third-hand information. However, a 1943 visit from Edwin Barclay, the President of Liberia, to the White House cracked the door for America’s Black press. As the first Black speaker to address a joint meeting of Congress, Black reporters were allowed into the press gallery for the first time. McAlpin covered President Barclay’s visit, not knowing that the following year he would break a color barrier in the media.
In 1944, McAlpin went on to become the first Black reporter to cover politics at the White House. While President Franklin D. Roosevelt insisted that he be allowed into the press conferences, members of the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) refused to ever accept him into membership. He fought every day to be in the room and respected. Upon his death in 1985, McAlpin had yet to be admitted to the organization. In 2014, the WHCA issued an apology and created a scholarship in McAlpin’s honor. I was blown away when I learned about his story, the Wisconsin connection, and the role of the Black media.
This year marks the 195th anniversary of the Black press, which was founded in 1827. While a number of publications have come and gone, Milwaukee is home to three Black weekly newspapers, monthly magazines, and online publications. In Wisconsin, with so many systemic and racially challenging issues, we often lose sight of what is special about both our city and state. We are fortunate to have a strong Black media presence, that provides us with an outlet to showcase Black voices, cultural life and even hear from elected officials like me. We can never take for granted what it means to have Black political power, Black political access and Black political reporters. Black media is often the thread that holds those pieces together.