Effort to Get Statue of Black Journalist in US, KY Capitols

A state senator wants to make some changes in what statues represent Kentucky in the state Capitol in Frankfort and the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

If Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr, R-Lexington, prevails, a statue of Alice Dunnigan of Russellville, the first Black woman to receive White House press credentials, will replace the statue of pioneer surgeon Ephraim McDowell of Danville in the National Statuary Hall collection in the U.S. Capitol and a replica of Dunnigan would be placed in the state Capitol.

It would be left up to the Kentucky Historic Properties Advisory Commission, which oversees statues in the state Capitol in Frankfort, to decide where the Dunnigan statue would be placed in the august building in Frankfort. There is a vacant spot in the Capitol Rotunda with the removal last year of the controversial statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

“It’s the right thing to do to put a statue for Alice Dunnigan in the U.S. Capitol and our state Capitol,” said Kerr, who, like Dunnigan, hails from Logan County. “I think it would be great to go to the U.S. Capitol and the Kentucky Capitol and see in it a statue of this beautiful, remarkable woman.”

To accomplish this, Kerr has filed a measure in this year’s General Assembly — Senate Joint Resolution 6 —to ask the Joint Committee on the Library of Congress to replace the Ephraim McDowelll statue in the Naitonal Statuary Hall collection in the U.S. Capitol with one of Dunnigan.

The National Statuary Hall is a popular tourist attraction in the U.S. Capitol. It was the site of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1807 to 1857. After years of disuse, it became in 1864 a hall devoted to sculptures of prominent Americans — two from each state. Kentucky’s representatives are 19th century statesman Henry Clay of Lexington and pioneer surgeon Ephraim McDowell of Danville. Both were placed in the Capitol in 1929.

By 1933, the hall had outgrown the single room, and a number of statues were placed elsewhere within the Capitol. Clay’s still is located in the hall and McDowell’s is in the Capitol Visitors Center.

Russellville attorney J. Gran Clark, who is assisting Kerr on the Dunnigan project, said he understands that a state’s statues in the U.S. Capitol have to have replicas in the state’s Capitol.

“This way we can get Alice Dunnigan in both the U.S. Capitol and the Kentucky Capitol,” said Clark. Statues of Clay and McDowell are in Kentucky’s Capitol Rotunda now along with the late Alben Barkley of Paducah, who was vice president under President Harry Truman from 1949 to 1953.

Clark, who was involved in successful efforts to get a statue of Dunnigan in Russellville in 2019, said Dunnigan “checks all the boxes in being honored. She was a teacher, journalist, a civil rights advocate and a Black woman who fought against all types of discrimination — racial, sexual and age.”

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