Forgotten Heroine, Ethel Payne: Pioneer of the Black Press

Ethel L. Payne had a front seat in history. Known as the First Lady of the Black Press, Payne’s career as a ground-breaking journalist and civil rights activist paved the way for future black journalists. With all of Payne’s accomplishments, contributions, and breaking racial barriers in journalism, she is an unsung hero who has been forgotten and obsolete.

Twenty miles south from Payne’s childhood home in the Englewood neighborhood, she is buried in an unmarked grave at Mt. Glenwood Memory Gardens South.  Payne cared for her community and touched the lives of many people that led to lifelong friendships.  Marianne Jordan, a Hazel Crest resident, met Ethel Payne at the First International Woman’s Year Conference in 1975 in Mexico City. Jordan was an Illinois delegate and remembered her first encounter with Payne, who was covering the conference. “I sat next to Ethel Payne at the conference. She was always warm and special. Ethel loved talking to people. I was overwhelmed because she was there, and I was sitting next to her, having a conversation. I loved Ethel. She was a special person, and I miss her dearly,” says Jordan.

Ethel Lois Payne was born on August 14, 1911, on the south side of Chicago. Her father was a Pullman Porter, and her mother was a stay-at-home mom. Growing up, Payne was an avid reader. Her favorite writer was Paul Laurence Dunbar.  Payne attended Lindbloom Technical High School in Englewood. She learned to write from her English teacher, who also taught a former student, journalist Ernest Hemingway.  After graduating from high school, Payne had ambitions to be a civil rights lawyer. She applied at the University of Chicago Law School but was denied due to her race. Payne had a short-lived career working for the Chicago Public Library as a Senior Library Assistant.

Payne became active in civil rights. She joined the NAACP Chicago Chapter and worked with Asa Philip Randolph’s March on Washington in 1941. In 1948, Payne left for Japan to work as a hostess for the Army Special Services Club. Her role was coordinating entertainment and recreation for black troops stationed in Japan.  Payne kept a diary writing her experience in Japan. She wrote about racism in the military. President Truman issued an Executive Order to desegregate military quarters and clubs, which General MacArthur ignored. As a result, black soldiers were not adequately trained for combat and were sent to the front line. Payne also wrote about babies who were left abandoned because their parents were black soldiers and Japanese women.

In Tokyo, Payne met L. Alex Wilson, a reporter for the Chicago Defender. Wilson, a World War II veteran, was assigned to cover the black soldiers in the Korean War. Payne shared her diary with Wilson. After reading a few of Payne’s excerpts, Wilson was impressed with her detailed accounts and desire for writing. So, with Payne’s permission, Wilson took her notes to the Chicago Defender, one of the major black newspapers founded by Robert Sengstacke Abbott.

The Chicago Defender published excerpts from Payne’s diary. The front-page article received backlash from the military in Japan. Payne described the mistreatment of the black troops and their relationships with Japanese women. Impressed with Payne’s writing skills, the Chicago Defender hired her in 1951.  During Payne’s 25-year career with the Chicago Defender, she was at the forefront of several historical events. Payne covered Brown v. Board of Education, Little Rock Nine desegregation, March on Washington, desegregation at the University of Alabama, and the murder of Emmett Till.

Payne became a Washington correspondent for the Chicago Defender. Along with Alice Dunnigan, Payne was one of the first two black women to hold White House press passes. Payne asked the tough questions about segregation and racism that many reporters ignored.  At her first White House press conference, Payne questioned President Dwight D. Eisenhower why the police banned Howard University from a Washington Coliseum dinner. President Eisenhower said the incident was a misunderstanding. Five months later, Payne angered President Eisenhower if he supported desegregating interstate travels.

Ethel Payne Chicago Defender

Payne was in attendance when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. President Johnson recognized Payne with two presidential pens for her civil rights activism.  Payne’s career covering racial injustices took her to countries abroad. She was the first black reporter to cover the Vietnam War and visited China after President Nixon’s trip in 1972.  From 1972 to 1982, Payne became the first black woman hired as a radio and television commentator for CBS’s Spectrum and Matters of Opinion.

After 25 years with the Chicago Defender, Payne served as a professor for the School of Journalist at Fisk University for one year.  Payne advocated the importance and viability of the black press. “I stick to my firm, unshakeable belief that the black press is an advocacy press,” she once said, “and that I, as a part of that press, can’t afford the luxury of being unbiased … when it comes to issues that really affect my people, and I plead guilty because I think that I am an instrument of change,” says Payne.

Payne was inducted into the District of Columbia Women’s Hall of Fame and won several awards from the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs, the National Association of Black Journalists and more.  Ethel Payne passed away on May 28, 1991, at age 79. In her memory, Payne was honored for her journalism career. In 2015, Lindbloom Math and Science Academy dedicated an innovative classroom to honor Payne. In addition, the National Association of Black Journalists created the Ethel Payne Fellowship that awards $5,000 to a worthy journalist. In 2002, Payne was one of four journalists honored with a U.S. postage stamp.

Her life and career are chronicled in three books including “The Power of Her Pen: The Story of Groundbreaking Journalist Ethel L. Payne”, “Pioneering Journalist Ethel Payne”, and “Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press”.  Ethel Payne was a fearless journalist and dedicated her life to raising awareness of racial injustices despite obstacles stacked against her. Payne was the voice of the people and deserves a prominent place in history.

The National Association of Black Journalists have partnered with me to raise money for a headstone for this influential journalist. It’s time to give Ethel Payne the proper headstone she deserves. Click here to donate the headstone for Ethel Payne.

Tammy Gibson is a black history traveler and author. Find her on social media @SankofaTravelHr

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