Ethel L. Payne was a pioneering Black journalist who became known for covering the rise of the civil rights movement and for her tenacious reporting. Known as the “First Lady of the Black Press,” Ms. Payne broke down many barriers in her career.
Born in 1911, the Chicago native studied journalism in college. She graduated from a small training college in Illinois and then took night classes at Northwestern University’s famed Medill School of Journalism.
By way of an account in author James McGrath Morris’ book, Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press, Payne was not an excellent student but a voracious reader and talented writer. After working as a hostess at Army Special Services club in Japan in 1948, a reporter from The Chicago Defender read one of her journals about the experience of Black soldiers in Japan. The paper ran portions of that journal, and The Defender hired her as a reporter. After two years, Payne was promoted to the Washington bureau chief and moved to the nation’s capital.
The granddaughter of slaves thrived in the position and developed a reputation for asking tough questions. Unlike the accounts of most mainstream journalists, Payne’s work for The Defender included advocacy.
Payne’s work as The Defender’s lone representative in D.C. gave her a unique outlook on the news of the day. The post also made her the first African-American female reporter to cover international news and she traveled around the globe on The Defender’s behalf.
Despite her achievements and the respect of her white peers, Payne still faced dangers in her profession. Covering news events in the South could be perilous as Jim Crow laws and the backwards mindset of white residents were unprepared for her boldness.
Some of the iconic figures of history Payne interviewed include Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., President John F. Kennedy, and Nelson Mandela, among several other noteworthy figures. Her tough but fair reporting even impressed her distinguished subjects.
In 1972, CBS hired Payne as a radio and television commentator and she became the first Black woman to hold such a post. She worked for the network for a decade before retiring. Payne passed away from a heart attack in 1991 at the age of 79.
Payne might not be a household name outside of journalism circles, but her legacy lives in by way of the U.S. postage stamp featuring her image that was released as post of the USPS’s “Women in Journalism” series. She also has a fellowship named after her offered by the National Association of Black Journalists for up and coming writers who wish to cover news in Africa.
PHOTO: Library Of Congress