Ethel Payne

The First Lady of the Black Press

Ethel was born in Chicago, IL on August 14, 1911. She was the fifth of six children and one of five girls. Her grandparents had all been slaves and migrated north in the late 1880s. Her father, William Payne, was a Pullman Porter. Pullman Porters were first hired by George Pullman after the Civil War to serve guests in his sleeper railroad cars. He saw newly freed slaves as an untapped work force and hired exclusively black men. This created an upper-class experience for even the middle-class passengers and quickly gained popularity so that all railroad companies began employing Pullman Porters. The unintended result of this was the beginnings of a black middle-class. In the realm of jobs available to black men, Pullman Porters were well paid and the positions were highly sought after.

Therefore, the Payne family was able to live a fairly comfortable life in Chicago. Sadly, William died when Ethel was 12 forcing her mother Bessie to take on domestic jobs and bring lodgers into their house to make ends meet. However, by doing this, she was able to keep her family where they were. The neighborhoods in Chicago were still highly segregated, but the Payne’s were in one of the nicer black neighborhoods called West Englewood. Because it was a nicer neighborhood, they were surrounded by white communities, which meant better schools.

However, to get to these schools, Ethel and her siblings had to walk through the white communities where they would be taunted and jeered at by the white residents. Ethel’s brother, who was small and sickly, took the brunt of this, which infuriated Ethel. Unable to do anything about their treatment, for fear of reprisals, Ethel decided early on that she wanted to be a lawyer so that as an adult she could fight against discrimination.

Ethel was a bright student and attended the mostly white, Lindblom Technical High School. Her senior year she applied to the University of Chicago Law School. While her grades and test scores should have granted her admission to the school, she was black. At that time, almost all of the black applicants were denied, and Ethel was one of them. Realizing that her dream of becoming a lawyer was outside of her reach, she continued her education beyond high school, but her pursuits were not focused. She bounced around from Crane Junior College, the Garrett Institute, and the Chicago Training School for City, Home and Foreign Missions. She even took night classes at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism for a time.
Ethel liked writing and, in 1930, she published a few short stories in the literary magazine, Abbott’s Monthly. She joined and became active with the NAACP and to pay the bills she worked as a clerk in a Chicago library. With no clear direction, but a desire to be more than a library clerk, Ethel accepted a position with Army Special Services and in 1948 moved to Japan.

Ethel Payne arrived in Japan in 1948 to work for the Army Special Services, which was a precursor of the American Red Cross. In her position, Payne helped plan and host activities for the soldiers stationed there and later, those on furlough from Korea. Despite President Harry Truman’s executive order ending racial segregation in the military, troops in the Pacific remained segregated in accordance with commands from General Douglas MacArthur. Therefore, Army Special Services had to prepare separate activities for the white soldiers and the black soldiers. Payne kept a detailed diary of her observations of the GIs both within the Army itself and amongst the Japanese people. 

It was in 1950 that Payne met L. Alex Wilson, a correspondent for the Chicago Defender. The Chicago Defender was the premier black newspaper of that time. Its white readership was non-existent, but it went out to over 100,000 black readers, over half of which were outside Chicago. They’re exact circulation is impossible to calculate because many Southern towns had banned the paper. So Pullman Porters leaving from Chicago would hide stacks of the papers in their personal lockers and surreptitiously drop them at Southern black churches and barbershops. Then the local residents would pass the papers amongst themselves. The Chicago Defender was to black communities what the New York Times was to white communities. Its influence was so wide spread that US Military Intelligence conducted a report on its circulation because they feared that it was a threat to racial order.

Therefore, unlike every other war correspondent, Wilson sought out Payne to get her thoughts on the black troops in Japan. When she told him of her diary, Wilson asked to read it and then after perusing its contents begged Payne to allow him to bring it back to the States with him. She acquiesced and from her diary entries, editors pieced together an article that ran on the front page of the Defender. This article was so popular, they pieced together a second.

These articles were not complimentary to the military, especially the public reveal that Pacific troops were still segregated. Needless to say, the military command was not happy about this, and Payne found herself out of a job. She returned to Chicago in 1951, where she was immediately hired by the Chicago Defender. For two years Payne served as a feature writer, covering stories of import to the black community like voter registration drives and the crisis surrounding the adoption of African American babies. In 1952, the Illinois Press Association recognized Payne’s article on adoptions as the best piece of the year.

In 1953, she was reassigned to Washington D.C. as the capital correspondent. Once in D.C. she acquired White House credentials, becoming the third African American to be granted access to the White House press room. Despite her credentials, many representatives from the South would refuse to speak with her. So Payne would pull the Congressional records and pull comments from those. She never stooped to name calling, instead preferring to use the congressmen’s own words against them. As she was largely surrounded by white reporters, Payne was asking questions that no one else was asking, and she quickly was given the moniker of the First Lady of the Black Press.

After the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, Payne consulted with the NAACP and their chief lobbyist Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. to help her strategize what to ask during a press conference with President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Payne asked one question after another about Civil Rights. She wanted to know why the Howard University choir, an historically black university, was cut at the last minute from a Republican function that the president attended. She wanted to know why President Eisenhower’s administration wasn’t supporting a ban on segregated interstate bus travel. This last question was more than Eisenhower could take, and he snapped at Payne in front of the entire press corps. In his flippant response, Eisenhower implied that Civil Rights were tantamount to a special interest, and he had better things to concern himself with.

This outburst caused not only a headline in the Chicago Defender, but also a handful of white newspapers including the Washington Star. The White House press office called Payne in and threatened to take away her credentials because she had violated a rule of the White House Correspondents Association. However, she had not violated any rules, so newspapers ran stories about Payne being harassed by the White House press office. Now it wasn’t just Ethel Payne asking questions about segregated travel and civil rights, but every Washington journalist worth their salt started investigating. Payne had angered the president and almost lost her credentials over one question, and the other correspondents wanted to know why. 

Payne kept her credentials and she had brought the Civil Rights fight to the front page of several white newspapers. This was a major win, but tensions remained high and it came at a cost. Eisenhower stopped calling on her.

With Payne’s diminished access at the White House, and unrest in the South bubbling over, Ethel began to take extended trips away from Washington to cover the Civil Rights Movement. She still covered Washington for the Defender but her focus had shifted. As a black woman, she fully admitted that she was not able to cover the Civil Rights Movement from an objective stand point, because the issues involved her to such an extent. While in the South she would have to find lodging and meals from local black families as hotels and restaurants wouldn’t serve her. Southern officials refused to grant her interviews, and she was often barred from press conferences.

Despite this, she often found better stories then her fellow ‘seg beat’ reporters. At the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Payne identified a man that she felt would emerge as the future leader of the NAACP and the entire Civil Rights Movement. That man? An up and coming pastor named Martin Luther King Jr. Payne was able to get the inside scoop on these stories, because she was one of the only reporters that local black citizens would talk to. She got the nitty-gritty information from the people on the street instead of the white-washed information being handed out at press conferences by the white officials and politicians.
Several white reporters recognized this advantage and formed an alliance with Payne. The white reporters would tell her what they learned from the white communities and Payne would tell them what she learned from the black communities. In this way, she was able to redirect or steer the direction and content of the movement’s coverage in the national white newspapers. Payne’s own coverage was chronicled in The Defender under the series name, “The South at the Crossroads.” In addition to the bus boycott, she covered the March on Washington, the Little Rock Nine, the integration of the University of Alabama, and the demonstrations in Selma and Birmingham. 

Payne was fearless in her investigations and refused to back down. Her criticisms were not only aimed at those who openly sought to maintain the status quo in the south, but also aimed at the veneer of progress. While Brown v. Board of Education was touted as a huge win for the movement in 1954, it lacked teeth. Payne aptly pointed out that while the decision did outlaw segregated schooling, there was no deadline for integration to occur, allowing white communities to drag their feet on implementation. Which is exactly what occurred, necessitating the deployment of National Guard troops to literally clear a path for black students to enter white schools.

When not covering the White House or the Civil Rights Movement, Payne covered international affairs. In 1955, she travelled to Indonesia for the Bandung Conference. This Asian-African conference had representatives from 29 third-world countries and their goal was to discuss peace and what role the third-world could take in matters of economics and decolonization. After the conference, Payne travelled around the world sending reports back to the United States from eleven countries in Africa and Europe. In 1957, she accompanied Vice President Nixon to Ghana to report on their colonial independence celebration.
In 1966-7, Payne spent three months in Vietnam covering the war. While there she went into the field, observed guerilla warfare training, looked into the black market of American military supplies and had the misfortune to witness an Agent Orange attack. Her assignment was to report on the improved status of black soldiers in the US military, and that is mainly where she kept her focus. Years later she would admit that she regretted not taking the opportunity to report critically about the conflict itself.

In 1969, she spent six weeks covering the Nigerian Civil War, with her emphasis on the plight of the refugees. The following year, Payne was in the press pool of Secretary of State William Rogers 10-nation tour of Africa and in 1971, she made an emergency trip with the Air Force to Lagos, Nigeria, to collect the remains of Whitney M. Young Jr. Young was the executive director of the National Urban League, an organization that fought for racial integration and economic empowerment for African Americans, as well as an adviser to the president. He died suddenly while in Lagos and though the coroner declared that he had drowned while swimming at the beach, there was some controversy over the accuracy of this claim. Payne was sent to retrieve the body as she was non-military and had connections in the country. 

Later that year, she was part of the US delegation to Monrovia, Liberia for the funeral of President William V.S. Tubman. In 1972 she traveled to the Democratic Republic of Zaire to report on the first Ordinary Congress of the Popular Revolution Movement, and did some travelling stateside to cover former president Lyndon B. Johnson’s Symposium on Civil Rights in Austin, Texas. 

Ethel moved back to Chicago shortly after her trip to Texas and was promoted to the position of editor at The Defender. In 1972, she broke the glass-ceiling of national broadcasting when CBS hired her as the first African American female commentator, where she worked for the ten next ten years. During her first year she worked on the radio series Spectrum. The following year, 1973, Spectrum was moved to television. Payne was on the air three times a week doing two-and-a-half minute commentaries. In 1978, she switched to the show Matters of Opinion. It was a radio show that focused on public affairs, and true to form, Ethel kept her focus on topics that were important to the African American community.

While at CBS, Ethel continued to travel the world and keep the pulse of politics in Washington D.C. In 1973, she toured China as one of the first journalists after Nixon’s visit in 1972. She was also invited to be in the press pool by Secretaries of State William P. Rogers and Henry Kissinger during their multi-nation tours of Africa. In October of 1976, Payne travelled back to Africa as a guest of the Senegalese government for the “Colloquium on Culture and Development” which was held in honor of President Leopold Senghor’s 70th birthday. In 1977, she made a second trip to the Republic of China.

In 1978, after 28 years, Ethel Payne resigned from The Defender in order to strike out and work as a freelance journalist. Returning to her old stomping grounds, Ethel moved back to Washington D.C. Her self-syndicated column ran in six different black newspapers across the country. In the 1980’s, she became highly involved in the anti-apartheid movement. She lobbied for the release of Nelson Mandela and was arrested for protesting at the South African Embassy in D.C. Ethel travelled and reported back from Africa three more times over the next decade. In 1982, she toured refugee camps in Somalia, Sudan, Zamibia and Zimbabwe. In 1989, she covered Namibia’s independence and in 1990, she travelled to South Africa to meet Nelson Mandela after his release from prison.

In addition to her journalism, Ethel Payne became a highly sought-after speaker, and took speaking engagements whenever her schedule allowed. She never retired or married claiming that she was married to her work. Ethel Payne died on May 28, 1991, of a heart attack in her Washington D.C. apartment. She was buried in Chicago, IL. Several of her awards and possessions are on display at the Anacostia County Museum in Washington D.C. In an editorial memorializing her life, the Washington Post stated, “Had Ethel Payne not been black, she certainly would have been one of the most recognized journalists in American society.”


Ethel Payne’s Awards and Recognitions

- 1954 and 1967 – Newsman’s Newsman Award
- 1956 – World Understanding Award – from Chicago Council on Foreign Relations
- 1964 – President Lyndon B. Johnson, in recognition of her work, presented her with a pen used in signing the Civil Rights Act
- 1967 – Capital Press Club awarded her for her Vietnam reporting
- 1973 – Fisk University – first recipient of Ida B. Wells Distinguished Journalism Chair
- 1978 – Ford Foundation Fellow in Educational Journalism
- 1980 – National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Club – named “Woman of Action” for achievement in journalism
- 1981 – Writer-in-residence, Jackson State University, Jackson Mississippi
- 1982 – Gertrude Johnson-Williams Award – from Jonson’s Publishing Company
- Sept 1982 – May 1983 – First recipient, “Ethel L. Payne” Professorship in Journalism, Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee
- 1983 – awarded the Africare Distinguished Service Award
- 1987 – awarded the TransAfrica African Freedom Award
- 1988 – inducted into the District of Columbia Women’s Hall of Fame
- 1988 – Candace Award – from Coalition of 100 Women
- 1993 - The National Association of Black Journalists dedicated the Ethel L. Payne fellowship in her honor to assist reporters wanting to travel to Africa
2002 – Appeared on a US postage stamp - One of four female journalists – Ida Tarbell, Marguerite Higgins and Nellie Bly were the other three
*Originally appeared on Patreon