McAlpin, Harry Sylvester
This article was written by Angelica Miller
June 25, 2018
Harry Sylvester McAlpin was born July 6, 1906 in St. Louis, MO to Louise (Scott) McAlpin of Missouri and Harry McAlpin of Mississippi [source: Ancestry.com]. His father died when McAlpin was fifteen and a senior in high school [source: African American Encyclopedia of Civil Rights, edited by C. D. Lowery and J. F. Marszalek]. Although not originally from Kentucky, McAlpin would spend several decades working alongside civil rights activists as a leader and activist in his own right. He lived in Louisville, KY, where his work as a lawyer centered around issues of segregation in housing, public accommodations, and education.
He attended the University of Wisconsin, majoring in journalism and advertising. Initially he had wanted to attend the University of Missouri; however, the University of Missouri barred him from attending because of his race [source: Maya Rhodan, “White House Correspondents Association Celebrates Black Journalist Once Shunned,” Time, 5/2/2014]. Soon after graduating, he moved to Washington D.C. to work as a journalist with the Washington Tribune, a weekly African American newspaper, from 1926-1929, serving as a reporter, editor, and office manager [source: BlackPast.org]. He then handled publicity and advertising for the National Benefit Life Insurance Company from 1929 to 1933 [source: Ancestry.com].
On October 5, 1929, McAlpin married Alice Berry Stokes in Washington, D. C. Alice was the child of Mary Duval Stokes and Sherman Stokes. The McAlpins would have one child together, Karlen Sherman McAlpin [source: Ancestry.com]. While Harry worked as an insurance agent from 1930-33, Alice worked as a teacher and then a researcher, often earning an income identical to her husband's, according to the 1930 and 1940 Census [source: Ancestry.com].
When the New Deal got underway in 1933, Harry McAlpin joined the New Negro Alliance to "protect the employment of Negroes under the NRA (National Recovery Administration) program" [source: BlackPast.org]. He attended law school at night at Howard University’s now-defunct Robert Terrill Law School, named for D.C. Municipal Court Judge Robert Terrell, while continuing to work at the Federal Security Agency during the day [source: Motley Mossey Archive]. He passed the District of Columbia bar exam in 1937 and then, while working as a part-time Washington correspondent with the Chicago Defender, he practiced law alongside Mary McLeod Bethune, Director of Negro Affairs at the National Youth Administration [source: BlackPast.org]. During his time at the U.S. Employment Service (1941-42), McAlpin was fired for the zeal with which he found gainful employment for African Americans, which was the primary function of his job; however, he fought for his reinstatement in what is known as the “McAlpin case” and was back at his desk in three months [source: G. Stone. “McAlpin Case,” Crisis, Jan. 1941, p. 20; and The Kentucky African American Encyclopedia, G. L. Smith et al, pp. 354-355].
In 1941 McAlpin served as the co-chair of the education committee in the Washington D.C. branch of the NAACP [“Branch News,” Crisis, Jan. 1941, pp. 13 & 20]. In 1943 McAlpin helped to co-sponsor a viewing of the movie Henry Brown, Farmer, a film about the contributions of African American farmers to the war effort shown at the Booker T. Washington Theater [source: “Notables Witness Henry Brown Premiere,” Indianapolis Recorder, 1/2/1943 p. 12].
After a decade of petitioning the White House Correspondents' Association (WHCA) for credentials necessary to attend the biweekly president’s press briefing, the watershed moment occurred in 1943. The National Negro Publishers Association’s (NNPA) successfully petitioned the WHCA for press credentials. President Roosevelt overruled the WHCA’s decision to deny the National Negro Publishers Association’s (NNPA) application for the press credentials to attend the presidential briefings [source: G. Condon Jr, "Harry McAlpin vs. the White House Press Corps," The Atlantic, 5/1/2014]. [Please note that the NNPA is now called the National Newspaper Publishers Association.]
McAlpin was selected by John Sengstacke, the founder of NPAA, to become the White House correspondent. In part to this was because of his experience as a Naval correspondent, his ties to several member newspapers, and his temperament. In addition to writing for the Atlanta Daily World, McAlpin was writing for the Chicago Defender. His work with the Atlanta Daily World, one of the only daily Black newspapers in the country, tipped the balance in favor of the NPAA’s application for press credentials. Because of the high number of newspapers in the country at the time, the WHCA had a rule that only daily newspapers would be granted passes, a rule that they occasionally broke for white-owned newspapers. Many of McAlpin’s contemporaries described him as even-tempered or even mild-mannered [source: S. Horsley, “Poised And Persistent, Reporter Broke White House Color Barrier,” NPR, 5/3/2014.].
On Feb 4, 1944, McAlpin received clearance for a White House pass. He would be covering the briefings for 51 newspapers [source: The Kentucky African American Encyclopedia]. Finally, on Feb 7, 1944, despite vehement opposition from members of the WHCA and under the threat of violence, McAlpin attended his first press conference in the oval office. In fact, then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt greeted him at the end, saying “I’m glad to see you, McAlpin, and I’m very happy to have you here,” [source: African American Encyclopedia of Civil Rights, edited by G. L. Smith et al, p. 472].
Although accredited at the White House, McAlpin was rejected when he applied for a congressional press pass. The Standing Committee of Correspondents that controlled accreditation for the newspaper press galleries at the Capitol regarded him as a reporter for primarily weekly papers, while the Periodical Press gallery rejected him because he reported for newspapers rather than magazines. McAlpin believed that these actions were influenced "by my racial identity rather than the flimsy technicality publicly stated.” [source: D. A. Ritchie, Reporting from Washington, pp. 34-36].
It would be another three years before African American newspapers would obtain the accreditation necessary to access the Congressional Press Galleries and the State Department. The accredited journalists were James L. Hicks, Percival L. Prattis, and Louis Lautier [source: “Long Overdue Honor for Harry McAlpin; Broke the Color Line of the White House Press Corps,” America Comes Alive]. Additionally, McAlpin was never a member of the WHCA; instead, he helped found The Capital Press Club in response to the overwhelming hostility to integrating the National Press Club and the WHCA [source: T. Albano, "Today in labor history: First Black reporter covers White House,” People's World, 2/8/2013].
Strong competition from a rival news service, the Associated Negro Press (ANP), led the NNPA to replace McAlpin as its Washington Correspondent with Louis Lautier. [source: D. A. Ritchie. Reporting from Washington].
In 1947, McAlpin worked for the Department of Agriculture as an Information Specialist in the Accounting Division while stationed in Missouri, according to the City Directory [source: Ancestry.org] before he was promoted to the Director of Information in the Sugar Rationing Program. He was also a naval correspondent with the rank of lieutenant commander [source: The Kentucky African American Encyclopedia; "Talk of Troops," The Detroit Tribune 3/20/1943 p. 11; and “G.I’s Protest Mistreatment at Atterbury,” Indianapolis Recorder, 12/9/1944, p. 1]. On November 16, 1948, McAlpin returned from Incheon, Korea, where he had been conducting an inspection tour and advocating for African American troops stationed abroad, according to a Passenger List [source: Ancestry.com]. His tenure was two years before the start of the Korean War.
His Time in Kentucky, 1950-1959
In 1949 McAlpin moved to Louisville, KY and joined the law firm Anderson and McAlpin with Charles W. Anderson, Jr. It was located on Tel Juniper in the Mammoth Building [source: U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995; and The Kentucky African American Encyclopedia]. From 1951-1956 McAlpin served as the President of the NAACP in Louisville, where he espoused a moderate integrationist approach to the issues of civil rights [source: email with R. Cunningham, current president of the NAACP, 6/1/2018].
In 1951 McAlpin launched a protest against the listing of city jobs as “white only” or “colored only”; while the local aldermen agreed with McAlpin’s proposal to abolish the practice, the director of the civil service, Franklin Weir, argued that it would be too much of a change from local custom. As a result of this setback, the NAACP launched a rally of 2,000 people. After nearly three years of continuous pressure from leaders in the Black community, the civil service department took down the classifications [source: T. E. K'Meyer, Civil Rights in the Gateway to the South: Louisville, Kentucky, 1945-1980].
After the Day Law was amended in the spring of 1950, institutions of higher education were able to settle the question of desegregation for themselves in cases where equal courses were not offered at Kentucky State College (now Kentucky State University), setting the stage for the fall of one of the larger obstacles to desegregation. [source: P. McElhone, The Civil Rights Activities of the Louisville branch of the NAACP 1914-1960, 1976 dissertation] Within months of the decision, several Catholic colleges and seminaries had moved to admit African American students [source: Civil Rights in the Gateway to the South: Louisville, Kentucky, 1945-1980]. As a result of an ultimatum from the Louisville NAACP to deliver a workable plan for desegregation or face legal action, the University of Louisville followed suit, setting fall 1950 as the year to begin admitting Black graduate students and 1951 for Black undergraduate students. [source: P. McElhone, The Civil Rights Activities of the Louisville branch of the NAACP 1914-1960, 1976 dissertation]
However, as was often the case in desegregation efforts, African American institutions were shuttered. In the case of Louisville Municipal College (LMC), when officials decided to close the school and accept those students who wanted to continue their studies at the University of Louisville, the issue of what to do with the faculty, tenured and non-tenured alike, was a pernicious controversy. At first, officials proposed firing all the Municipal College faculty and giving them a two-months severance package. [source: D. Eakin, Preparation For The Desegregation Of The Louisville School System, 1974 dissertation] As a result, the faculty engaged McAlpin to pursue a breach of contract lawsuit. Newly hired President Philip Davidson diffused the mounting tension by hiring Charles C. Parrish, Jr. of LMC’s sociology department and arranging for year-long fellowships for other LMC faculty. Only two LMC faculty refused to accept these terms; they were given a year’s salary and assistance securing teaching positions elsewhere [source: Civil Rights in the Gateway to the South: Louisville, Kentucky, 1945-1980].
In 1953, McAlpin denounced the Democratic Party, joining C. Eubank Tucker and Charles Lunderman in reviving the Kentucky Bureau of Negro Affairs (KBNA) [source: Civil Rights in the Gateway to the South]. That same year McAlpin was elected to membership in the Louisville Bar Association along with Charles W. Anderson, Jr., and Ralph H. Richards. They were the first African Americans in the organization’s history [source:"Society Doings," The Detroit Tribune, 12/13/1953, p. 3]. McAlpin became the assistant commonwealth attorney, following in the footsteps of Charles W. Anderson, Jr. [source: Civil Rights in the Gateway to the South: Louisville, Kentucky, 1945-1980]. He would remain in the position until 1953, when he was dropped from a case because of his race; the case involved three white women defendants [source: “McAlpin Quits Law Firm,” Louisville Defender, 1/12/1952, p. 6]. By state statute, in fact, McAlpin was barred from acting as a witness in the case, which involved a Negro man accused of assault against three white women who were charged with prostitution [source: “Lone Negro Prosecutor in KY Quits,” Jet Magazine, 3/19/1953, p. 4].
In the same year, McAlpin also tried an innovative strategy to breach segregationist public accommodation laws. He argued on behalf of Hybunia Moorman, a fair-skinned woman with "Caucasian features, brown hair and blue eyes," that the application of park segregation ordinances were "vague and arbitrary" and thus should be abolished altogether .[source: P. McElhone, The civil rights activities of the Louisville branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1914-1960, p. 70] However, Judge Lampe Stuart was not moved by the arguments and ruled on July 24, 1953 to continue the ordinances. This case was part of a decades long push by the Louisville NAACP to topple segregation practices specific to parks and other forms of public leisure areas.
In 1954 McAlpin served as a financial trustee for the Wade Defense Council (WDC), which was established to pursue legal redress for the segregationist violence the Wade family experienced as a result of buying a home in a traditionally all-white neighborhood. The WDC brought together the NAACP, the KNBA, the MCM, and the Negro Labor Council (NLC) representatives for the Louisville Defender and the radical labor and civil rights communities that were part of the Progressive Party. [source: Civil Rights in the Gateway to the South: Louisville, KY 1945-1980]
In May 1955, McAlpin filed suit in Federal District Court on behalf of 11 children, seeking to open all city parks, especially those used in conjunction with public schools. However, even before the case had a hearing, park segregation ended in Louisville as a result of a November 7, 1955 ruling by the Supreme Court that banned “segregation in all public parks, playgrounds and golf courses.” [source: P. McElhone, The Civil Rights Activities of the Louisville Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People 1914-1960, p. 73]
In July 1960 McAlpin defended 12 students charged with leading campus demonstrations against school regulations when they conducted a series of lunch counter sit-ins. Students Owen Carter, Cincinnati; J. D. Detwylier, Lynch, KY.; Frank Howard, Miami; Lester Tripp, Brooklyn; Samuel Bolden, Roanoke, VA.; George Mahin, Louisville; Jerome Williams, Fort Knox; Mary A. Cossey, East Chicago, IN.; Amanda Hodges, Indianapolis, and Lillian Graves, Brooklyn had been expelled as a result of their activism.
However, in July 1960, the Kentucky State Board of Regents recommended that Kentucky State College (now Kentucky State University) President Rufus B. Atwood and the College Executive Council individually reconsider the expulsion. [source: "Regents Urge Re-Admittance to KSC: Ousted 'Sit-Ins' Get Help,” New Pittsburgh Courier, 7/7/1960 p. 7]
In December 1960, McAlpin helped argue a case to save Domestic Life Insurance Co., the only Black-owned insurance company in Kentucky, from being sold to Kentucky Central Life. [source: "Try Made to Save Company for Race: Court Battle to Remove Insurance Company Head," New Pittsburgh Courier, 12/15/1960, p. 9]. However, a purchase was successful in 1961 by Earl Burrus Dickerson of Supreme Liberty Life for 1.8 million dollars [source: J. H. Ingham and L. B. Feldman, African-American Business Leaders: A Biographical Dictionary].
In July 1964, McAlpin, a member of the Human Rights Commission’s (HRC) Housing Committee, drafted a proposal for equal opportunity housing in Louisville that would outlaw “refusing to sell, rent, or lease housing to anyone because of race, religion, or national origin; the representation that housing as not available for inspection when in fact it was; and the discrimination in terms, conditions, and privileges of any property deal. It provided for fines of up to one hundred dollars for each offense, with three or more offenses subject to contempt of court proceedings.” [source: R. H. Bernier, White activists, and support in the Louisville, Kentucky open housing movement, 1962-1967, dissertation, pp. 41-42] This proposal then passed to the executive board and the city Board of Alderman.
However, due to the social climate that positioned public discrimination as unseemly but discrimination in housing to be acceptable or beyond the tolerance of the average white voter, the proposal failed. In September, the commission would draft a proposal that lacked any enforcement mechanisms, “Declaration of Principles on the Freedom of Residence"; it was endorsed by the Mayor, Board of Alderman, and the Board of Realtors. In 1965 the proposal passed with a provision to create a seven-person committee to investigate claims of racial or religious discrimination in housing. [sources: Civil Rights in the Gateway to the South: Louisville, Kentucky, 1945-1980; and R. H. Bernier, White activists and support in the Louisville, Kentucky open housing movement, 1962-1967]
Also in 1964, McAlpin pushed for a proposal that would end state financial aid for schools that were still racially segregated. [source: The Kentucky African American Encyclopedia]
In 1968 McAlpin introduced a motion to the Kentucky Board of Education to require that senior year American history courses include the histories of African Americans and other racial or ethnic minorities. The motion passed unanimously. During that same meeting, McAlpin, the only African American on the seven-man board, announced that he would be resigning from it as he had accepted an appointment to a “federal quasi-judicial board” in California [source: “State: Include Negro History Study,” Kentucky Kernel, 5/2/1968, p. 1]. However, Kentucky was not the first to introduce such a mandate; several states along the eastern seaboard were thinking arbout the issue at the same time. [source: “Kentucky Schools to get Better Picture of Negro,” Kentucky Kernel, 9/15/1966, p. 1]
In June 1968, Jet magazine reported that McAlpin, along with three other Black attorneys (Herman T. Been of Richmond VA; James C Lightfoot, the former assistant examiner for the Ohio Review Board; and Moses Thompson, an attorney examiner for the Ohio Review Board) had been appointed as hearing examiners to the Social Security office. The four would adjudicate Social Security claims. This was a high-level appointment, requiring seven years practice in addition to two years in administrative law. At the time it was assumed that these appointments were made strategically to quell claims that the all-white executive judicial board in the administration kept African Americans from a fair hearing about their benefits. [source: "Name 4 Top Negro Lawyers to Social Security Dept.," Jet Magazine, 6/6/1968, p. 3]. These four men were the first African American administrative judges in U.S. history.
In 1971, McAlpin was named the “first Negro hearing examiner for the Agricultural Department.” McAlpin was 65 at the time. [source: “Agriculture Aide Named,” New York Times, 10/10/1971, p. 73]. Later he returned to his law practice in Louisville [source: Motley Moose Archive].
Death and Legacy
McAlpin died in July 1985 in Fairfax, VA, just days before his 79th birthday. He was preceded in death by his wife Alice Stokes McAlpin, who died of complications related to Alzheimer's Disease in 1983. [source: Death Certificate and Social Security Claim in Ancestry.com]
In 2014, McAlpin was posthumously honored by President Barack Obama at the White House Correspondents Dinner. His son Sherman accepted the medal on his family’s behalf. In addition, George E. Cordon, former president of the WHCA, started an organizational scholarship in McAlpin’s name to aid in the development of future journalists. [source: Maya Rhodan, “White House Correspondents Association Celebrates Black Journalist Once Shunned,” 5/2/2014].
This article was written by Angelica Miller.