Ethel L. Payne

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Ethel L. Payne
Ethel L. Payne and United States President Lyndon B. Johnson
Born(1911-08-14)August 14, 1911
DiedMay 29, 1991(1991-05-29) (aged 79)
Other namesEthel Lois Payne
Years active1950-1991

Ethel Lois Payne (August 14, 1911 – May 29, 1991) was an African-American journalist. Known as the "First Lady of the Black Press," she 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.[1] First published in The Chicago Defender in 1950, she worked for that paper through the 1970s, becoming the paper's Washington correspondent and editor for a period of about 20 years.[2] She 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, working as a syndicated columnist.[2][3]

Early life and education[edit]

Payne was born in Chicago, Illinois, to William A. Payne, a Pullman porter who was the son of Tennessee farmers who were former slaves[4] and Bessie Payne (née Austin), a former Latin teacher who was from Ohio, the daughter of former slaves from Kentucky.[3][5]

Payne was the fifth of six children: her siblings were Alice Wilma Payne, Thelma Elizabeth Payne, Alma Josephine Payne, Lemuel Austin Payne, and Avis Ruth Payne. Payne grew up on Chicago's South Side.[3] The family first settled in West Englewood, then West Woodlawn, and then moved back to West Englewood, where in 1917 they bought a house, which was located across the street from the Greater Saint John AME Church of Chicago, where the family attended church and participated in community events.[3]

Payne attended Copernicus Elementary School, then Lindblom Technical High School, where one of her writing teachers had also taught Ernest Hemingway.[6] Both schools had very few African-American students, and walking to school was often challenging.[3]

From the late 1920s to early 1930s, Payne attended City Colleges of Chicago, then known as Crane Junior College, the Garrett Institute, and the Chicago Training School for City, Home and Foreign Missions.[7] In the 1940s, Payne received a three-year certificate. From 1940 to 1942, she attended night school at Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.[5]


From 1939 to 1947, Payne worked as a library assistant at the Chicago Public Library.[5][7]

In May 1948, Payne left her job as a senior library assistant at the Chicago Public Library to move to Tokyo, where she had a job as a service club hostess at the Army Special Services club, an organization similar to the Red Cross.[5] She held this job from 1948 to 1951, eventually becoming the Director of United States Army service club, quartermaster depot in Tokyo, Japan.[7]

Payne yearned to be a writer at a time when few such opportunities existed for African-American women.[8] Payne began her journalism career rather unexpectedly while in Japan. She allowed a visiting reporter from The Chicago Defender to read her journal, which detailed her own experiences as well as those of African-American soldiers. Impressed, the reporter took the journal back to Chicago and soon Payne's observations were being used by The Defender, an African-American newspaper with a national readership, as the basis for front-page stories.

In 1951, Payne moved back to Chicago to work full-time for Sengstacke Newspapers, the publisher of The Chicago Defender. She worked as an Associate editor and reporter from 1951 to 1978. After working there for two years, in 1953, Payne took over the paper's one-person bureau in Washington, D.C. and became the Washington correspondent for Sengstacke Newspapers, a position she held until 1973.[7] 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.[9] In this position, Payne was only one of three accredited African Americans on the White House Press Corps.[4]

Press pin issued to Payne for the Asian-African Conference in Bandung, Indonesia, April 1955.

During Payne's twenty-five year career with The Chicago 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, as well as the 1963 March on Washington.[10] She and the African American 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.[11]

Payne earned a reputation as an aggressive journalist who asked tough questions. She once asked President Dwight D. Eisenhower when he planned to ban segregation in interstate travel. 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.

In 1964, Payne attended the signing by President Johnson of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, where the President gave her one of the pens he used to sign the legislation.[3]

In 1966, she traveled to Vietnam to cover African-American troops, who were involved in much of the fighting. She subsequently covered the Nigerian civil war and the International Women's Year Conference in Mexico City, and accompanied Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on a six-nation tour of Africa.[9]

In 1972 she 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.

In 1978, Payne became an associate of the Women's Institute for Freedom of the Press (WIFP).[12] WIFP is an American nonprofit publishing organization. The organization works to increase communication between women and connect the public with forms of women-based media.

Payne served as a professor for the School of Journalism at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee for one year.

Payne continued writing and advocated for the release of Nelson Mandela.

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.”[4] On May 28, 1991, aged 79, Payne died of a heart attack at her home in Washington, D.C.


Ethel Payne was one of four journalists honored with a U.S postage stamp in a "Women in Journalism" set in 2002.[9][13]

Prompted by her work in Africa as a foreign correspondent and to honour the name of a journalist who covered seven U.S. presidents and was a war correspondent, the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) award "Ethel Payne Fellowships" to journalists interested in obtaining international reporting experience through assignments in Africa.[14]

Several of Ethel Payne's belongings and awards are on view at the Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, D.C.

Selected awards[edit]


  1. ^ Ifill, Gwen (February 26, 2015). "Black journalist Ethel Payne changed the national agenda with coverage of civil rights" (Video with transcript). PBS NewsHour.
  2. ^ a b Collins, Carrie; Payne, Ethel (March 20, 1987). "University of Mississippi's Covering the South: Interview with Ethel Payne" (Video interview). C-SPAN.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Morris, James McGrath (2015). Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the Second Lady of the Black Press. New York: Amistad (HarperCollins Publishers). ISBN 978-0-062-19887-7. OCLC 903376010.
  4. ^ a b c Morris, James McGrath (2 August 2011). "Ethel Payne,'first lady of the black press,'asked questions no one else would". The Washington Post.
  5. ^ a b c d Jones, Ida E.; Conteh, Alhaji (June 2016). Ethel Payne Papers (Finding aid). Washington, D.C.: Howard University.
  6. ^ Ihejirika, Maudlyne (June 24, 2016). "Lindblom High honors famous student Ethel Payne". Chicago Sun-Times.
  7. ^ a b c d Brooks, Joseph K.; Moody, Susie H. (2010). Ethel L. Payne Papers (Finding aid). Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress.
  8. ^ Garner, Dwight (February 12, 2015). "Review: The Reporter Ethel Payne in 'Eye on the Struggle'". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved March 13, 2017.
  9. ^ a b c Shellie M. Saunders, "Ethel L. Payne", Gale Contemporary Black Biography.
  10. ^ "Obituaries: Ethel Payne, 79, Dies; Was a Correspondent", New York Times, June 1, 1991.
  11. ^ Roberts and Foulcher (2016). Indonesian Notebook: A Sourcebook on Richard Wright and the Bandung Conference. Duke University Press. pp. 25–26.
  12. ^ "Associates | The Women's Institute for Freedom of the Press". Retrieved June 21, 2017.
  13. ^ "Four Accomplished Journalists Honored on U.S. Postage Stamps; Nellie Bly, Marguerite Higgins, Ethel L. Payne, and Ida M. Tarbell", USPS Press Release (September 14, 2002).
  14. ^ Fellowships Archived September 15, 2012, at the Wayback Machine, National Association of Black Journalists.
  15. ^ "CANDACE AWARD RECIPIENTS 1982-1990, Page 3". National Coalition of 100 Black Women. Archived from the original on March 14, 2003.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]