BHM: Extra! Extra! Read All About Ethel Payne, “First Lady of the Black Press”

by Lori Lakin Hutcherson (@lakinhutcherson)

Now that the government shutdown is over and national museums are open again (unless that mess happens again), Black History Month is an especially poignant time to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) if you are in the D.C. area.

I had the good fortune to visit NMAAHC two years ago, and still remember acutely its “Making a Way out of No Way” exhibit, which focusses on the six avenues African-Americans pursued post-slavery to gain equity and agency in the United States – Activism, Enterprise, Organization, Education, Faith, and… the Press.

Because of my lifelong interest in journalism, I am personally drawn to stories about the Black Press, which has existed in some form since antebellum times (the first black publication of record is the Freedom Journal in 1827), and exists to this day.

Yet so many don’t know about its rich history and how its presence and its reporters not only served often unrecognized communities, but also were (and still are) deeply involved in activism and social justice at every turn in every era on local, state and national levels.

Enter Ethel Lois Payne.

Long before former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer attempted to call out American Urban Radio Networks’ correspondent April Ryan for giving him what he thought was a disrespectful headshake while simply trying to do her job, Ethel Payne was agitating White House officials in the press room on a daily.

Payne set the standard in the 1950s when she became one of only three black journalists to be credentialed as a member of the White House Press Corps.

Known as the “First Lady of the Black Press,” Payne was a columnist, lecturer, and freelance writer. She combined advocacy with journalism as she reported on the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s and 1960s, and was known for asking questions others dared not ask.

It was just unheard of for blacks to be standing up and asking presidents impertinent questions and particularly a black woman. – Ethel Payne

Payne became the first female African-American commentator employed by a national network when CBS hired her in 1972. In addition to her reporting of American domestic politics, she also covered international stories, and questioned every president from Eisenhower to Reagan.

As Payne’s biographer, James McGrath Morris, who wrote Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press says, “Her not being known today is really a legacy of segregation, in that she was iconic to a large segment of the U.S. population, but like most black institutions, the Chicago Defender was entirely invisible to white Americans. So the notion of discussing civil rights with the President of the United States, in that case Eisenhower, she felt she was part of ‘the problem’ and couldn’t pursue typical objective reporting. Instead she adopted a measure of being fair. It may seem like a small distinction but it wasn’t. Her questions were laden with an agenda.”

Born in Chicago, Illinois, the granddaughter of slaves, Payne’s father worked as a Pullman Porter, one of the best jobs open to African Americans in those times. He died at age forty-six after contracting an deadly infection from handling soiled linens and clothes on the train, when Ethel was fourteen years old. Her mother then took various domestic jobs to support the family, which made it difficult to educate all of her children.

Ethel spent her childhood in the predominantly black neighborhood of West Englewood bit attended Chicago public schools, notably the mostly white Lindblom Technical High School. Payne longed to be a writer and pushed to continue her education at Crane Junior College and the Chicago Training School for City, Home, and Foreign Missions.

After graduating from the Chicago Training School in 1934 with a two-year vocational degree, Ethel Payne worked as a matron in the State Training School for Girls in Geneva, Illinois, and as a nursery school teacher in settlement houses and public schools in Chicago. She completed a library training program with the Chicago Public Library and was employed as a junior librarian. 

Her telling of this time in her life, in her own words, is fascinating, lively and astute. There is a series of interview transcripts of her online in the Women in Journalism collected oral histories and they are priceless: http://beta.wpcf.org/oralhistory/payn.html

From 1941 to 1943 Payne worked closely with the labor and civil rights leader A. Phillip Randolph on the March on Washington Movement, which aimed to end discrimination in the military and in war industries. In 1943, in recognition of her prominence as an activist, the Illinois governor Dwight Green appointed Payne to the Illinois Interracial Commission, which was created to reduce tensions between whites and blacks and ward off race riots.

Payne still yearned to be a writer even when few such opportunities existed for African-American women. Although she was untrained as a journalist, Payne was an accomplished and knowledgeable writer. In 1930, while only nineteen, she published several short stories in Abbott’s Monthly, a literary magazine, and a decade later she took evening writing courses at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

She unexpectedly began her official journalism career while working as a hostess at an U.S. Army Special Services recreation club in Japan, a position she took in 1948. Payne was engaged but really wanted to travel and figured she’d get married when she came back from Japan after a year. (She remained there for three. Her fiancé moved on.)

White and black soldiers remained segregated at the club because of General Douglas MacArthur’s disregard of President Harry Truman‘s executive order ending racial segregation in the military. During her three-year tour, Payne observed the interaction between black soldiers and Japanese women–romances that produced interracial babies who were shunned by Japanese society.

When the Korean War began in 1950 Payne met two journalists working for black American newspapers who stopped in Japan on their way to report on black troops in combat. She shared with them what she had chronicled about the fraternization of black soldiers with Japanese women and gave the diary accounts she had written to L. Alex Wilson, the correspondent for the Chicago Defender, a weekly that was the flagship of the nation’s century-old black press and every issue carried its blazing motto: “American Race Prejudice Must Be Destroyed.”

(FYI: while the circulation of The Defender, a weekly, was about 130,000 in 1920, its reach was vastly wider. Copies were filtered across the country, passed from hand to hand. Few black Americans, especially in the South, dared get it via mail as the paper was banned in some towns. So its editors worked out arrangements with Pullman porters, and each week the men would get bundles of The Defender, store them in their personal lockers on the trains, and drop them off at barbershops and churches along their Southern routes.)

The Defender published a front-page article based on Payne’s diary entries with Payne’s byline under the headline “Japanese Girls Playing GIs for Suckers, ‘Chocolate Joe’ Used, Amused, Confused.” The article, as well as a second one, placed Payne in bad stead with the military command in Japan but garnered her a job offer from the Defender editors in Chicago.

In the early 1950s, Payne moved back to Chicago to work full-time for the Defender. She wrote articles about adoption by Black families and about voter registration drives, among many other topics. After working there for two years, she took over the paper’s one-person bureau in Washington D.C.

In addition to national assignments, Payne was afforded the opportunity to cover stories overseas, becoming the first African-American woman to focus on international news coverage (the Defender played up her trips in its pages, calling her its “globe-trotting reporter”), and only one of three accredited African-Americans on the White House Press Corps.

Ethel quickly built a reputation for herself, with her “larger-than-life” personality. She was fun to be around; in Washington, invitations to her dinner parties were prized. She was a sought-after guest as well. At one white-tie diplomatic dinner, she described herself this way: “All gussied up in a high style wig, floating chiffon and a stand-up girdle with sittin’ down shoes.”

Mentored by Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr., the chief lobbyist for the NAACP, Payne grew into an assertive member of the White House Press Corps. Unlike the majority of journalists, Payne hammered away at President Dwight Eisenhower with questions about civil rights, a topic of importance to her black readers but ignored by representatives of the mainstream media.

Beginning in 1954 with a question about why the Howard University Choir had been excluded at the last minute from performing at a Republican event that the president had attended, Payne developed a reputation as a fearless questioner.

Later she pressed Eisenhower on why the administration was not supporting a ban on segregation on interstate bus travel. He reacted with fury at what he regarded as an impertinent question and offered a tart reply suggesting that civil rights matters were a kind of special interest.

One of Payne’s White House press badges. (Ethel Lois Payne Collection, Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution)

The exchange landed Payne on the front pages of newspapers and made her a sensation. The President’s angry response that he refused to support “special interests” made headlines and helped push civil rights issues to the forefront of national debate. It also brought down the wrath of the White House press office, which threatened to take away Payne’s credentials.

Payne and President Lyndon B. Johnson. (Ethel Lois Payne Collection, Anacostia Community Archives, Smithsonia)

During Payne’s twenty-five year career with the Defender, she covered several key events in the Civil Rights Movement, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott and desegregation at the University of Alabama in 1956, the 1957 Central High School crisis in Little Rock, AK, as well as the 1963 March on Washington.

Payne and author Richard Wright attended the 1955 Bandung Conference, and Wright showcased some of his exchanges with her in his 1956 book The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference.

In 1966, she traveled to Vietnam to cover African-American troops, and subsequently covered the Nigerian civil war and the International Women’s Year Conference in Mexico City. She was among the earliest American journalists to tour China, following President Nixon’s historic visit.

In 1972, Payne became the first African-American woman radio and television commentator on a national network, working on CBS’s program Spectrum from 1972 to 1978, and after that with Matters of Opinion until 1982.

During this time, Ethel became nearly as newsworthy as the stories she covered. When Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s staff was putting together a press pool for his trip to several African countries in 1976, Kissinger said to an aide: “You know that woman who gives me hell on CBS? Let’s ask her.”  Ethel accompanied Kissinger on a six-nation tour of Africa.

In 1978, she resigned permanently from the Defender and ended her relationship with CBS, eventually resettling in Washington, D.C. and self-syndicating a column. In the 1980s Payne supported the anti-apartheid movement and was arrested protesting at the South African embassy in Washington, D.C. In 1990 she traveled to South Africa to meet with Nelson Mandela shortly after his release from prison. 

Payne died of a heart attack in her D.C. apartment when she was 79. She remained single to the end of her life, saying, “I was married to my work.” She is buried in her hometown Chicago. 

In 2002, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp with her likeness.

In an interview a few years prior to her death, Payne said, “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.”

To read and learn more about the incredible Ethel Payne, pick up her biography, check out wikipedia.org, timeline.com, or Women in Journalism’s interviews with her from 1987.

3 thoughts on “BHM: Extra! Extra! Read All About Ethel Payne, “First Lady of the Black Press””

  1. Since I was a teenager I’ve tried to educate myself about events and people left out of history books but i’m embarrassed to say I didn’t know about this woman so thank you for bringing her to our attention. That’s why I love this blog.

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