The granddaughter of a freed slave, and daughter of a Pullman Porter, Ethel L. Payne was surrounded by a family with a strong work ethic at an early age. Despite her father’s death at the age of 12, leaving behind 6 children, Payne’s mother, who cleaned houses and took in lodgers encouraged Payne’s gift with words. During a time where other families would have had to rely on an extra hand in the workforce to bring in extra money, Payne’s mother urged her to attend Lindblom High School, a school in a white district.
–She excelled in English and history; an English teacher recognized her flair, and urged her to write essays and stories, and even to submit one story to a magazine. It was published, as were other pieces in the school newspaper, but at this point Payne’s ambition was to become a lawyer, “…just as I was so fierce about protecting my brother, I had a strong, strong, deeply embedded hatred of bullies…. So I said, ‘Well, I want to grow up and be a lawyer, and I want to defend the rights of the poor people.’ ” Due to financial constraints, she attended Crane Junior College briefly, and then a division of Garrett Biblical Institute. Her application to the University of Chicago Law School was refused, partly due to racial discrimination.– (Black History Now)
Payne’s road to journalism was a surprise one. Seeking change from her role as a matron in a girls reform school and as a Chicago Public Library clerk, Payne went overseas to serve American forces in post-war Japan with the Red Cross. During the sea voyage Payne kept a diary, detailing her experiences and illegal and immoral practices within the military. This diary was passed along to a reporter from the Chicago Defender, and her entries were published in the U.S. as front page stories about the experiences of African American soldiers. This opened the door for Payne to become a reporter, with nation’s leading black newspaper, writing full time in 1951. Payne was a force in that role covering key civil rights issues, interviewing President Eisenhower, Nixon, Vietnam, Nigerian Civil war and making a name for herself as one who never shied away from asking the tough questions. For Payne, hard news dominated her interests, and while other women were forced sometimes to cover “women stories” or fluff pieces about homemaking, and cooking she never let a gender stereotype set her agenda for what she would cover.
–Her stories from the South and her continued nudging presence in the Washington press corps made her one of the civil rights movement’s most visible chroniclers for African Americans — but she was unknown to white readers. Over the next three decades, she became known in Washington as “the first lady of the black press.”– (Washington Post)
In 1970, Payne became the first African American female radio and television commentator on CBS, the first black female to have that role on a national network.
–Payne saw herself both as an emissary from and a representative of a large group of Americans long neglected by the mainstream media. A few years before her death, she told an interviewer, “I stick to my firm, unshakeable belief that the black press is an advocacy press, and that I, as a part of that press, can’t afford the luxury of being unbiased . . . when it come to issues that really affect my people, and I plead guilty, because I think that I am an instrument of change.”
Only 20years after her death, she is little remembered, a victim of the very racism she fought as a journalist. “Had Ethel Payne not been black,” The Washington Post noted in an editorial on her passing in 1991, “she certainly would have been one of the most recognized journalists in American society.”–(Washington Post)
Yet, in 2002 Payne and her incredible journey of being a journalist dedicated to the plight of Blacks striving for equality in America, and shedding light on international topics, was honored with a likeness on a U.S. postage stamp. Today, we remember, Ethel L. Payne, who used her words to uplift and champion causes across the board, and who was not ashamed to to ask tough questions, and get answers.