Ethel L. Payne

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Date: Mar. 11, 2022
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography
Length: 1,686 words
Content Level: (Level 3)
Lexile Measure: 1060L

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About this Person
Born: August 14, 1911 in Chicago, Illinois, United States
Died: May 28, 1991
Nationality: American
Occupation: Journalist
Other Names: Payne, Ethel L.; Payne, Ethel Lois
Updated:Mar. 11, 2022
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An inspiration among her peers and a voice of her people, Ethel L. Payne dedicated her career to topics that touched her heart. Dubbed "the first lady of the Black press," many of Payne's writings revolved around civil rights and international politics. Payne dedicated her life to a journalism career and even forfeited marriage and children so that she could further her craft. Unafraid to expose injustices, Payne became known for her hard-nose tactics and her ability to cover all angles of a story. Such traits won her many praises, but she found that everyone was not a fan of her mission.

Ethel Lois Payne was born and raised in Chicago. The granddaughter of slaves and the daughter of William Payne and Bessie (Austin) Payne, she was born on August 14, 1911. Payne was the fifth of six children. Her father was a Pullman porter and her mother was a Latin teacher. Payne's interest in writing arose from nightly sessions where her mother read the Bible and literature to Payne, her brother, and her four sisters. Originally, Payne wanted to be a civil rights lawyer, but when she was not accepted into law school, she had to find a new career ambition.

After working as a library clerk in Chicago, Payne left the city in 1948 to work as director of an army club in Tokyo, where her journalism talents were discovered. She had been keeping a journal about her observations during her stay in Japan. After a Chicago Defender reporter visited her, she gave him permission to take the journal back to Chicago. Known for voicing issues in the Black community that were not explored by white papers, the Defender ran excerpts of Payne's diary on its front page. Though the excerpts of her diary, which told stories of Black troops stationed in Japan, did not sit well with the United States military, her reports led to a job offer with the Defender.

Joined Chicago Defender Staff

In 1951, Payne returned to America and joined the ranks of famous writers including William Motley, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Langston Hughes whose bylines also appeared in the Defender. Payne, who obtained a degree from Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University after accepting the position with the Defender, had been hired as a feature writer. However, it was not long before she was covering investigative stories.

Shortly after her hiring, Payne's editor sent her to the capital to act as the paper's Washington, D.C. bureau. In the heart of the civil rights movement, Payne chronicled historic, national events and measures that arose in and around Capitol Hill. Among the first incidents to gain national attention for Payne was an encounter with Dwight D. Eisenhower at a press conference in 1954. Following the Interstate Commerce Commission's decision to end segregation practices on interstate highways, Payne asked Eisenhower about his plans to initiate the commission's decision. Eisenhower met her question with a degree of animosity, and informed her that his intent was to be fair, but he would not cater to special interests. Following that press conference, Eisenhower showed his dismay for Payne by refusing to recognize her at future conferences.

Though Payne thought she was acting as a conduit for the concerns of African-American citizens, she was sometimes criticized by other Black journalists who accused her of stealing the limelight in efforts to have her name recognized by larger papers. The Washington Post captured Payne as a woman who "...didn't hesitate to ruffle feathers by asking questions on the minds of her readers." According to the Washington Post, "If sometimes it seemed over-activist to other journalists, Miss Payne would note that Black people were not represented in the press as they are today--that she was not 'trying to make waves' but rather to find out when and how the powers might act to end racial discrimination in housing, interstate travel and other areas in which government might act."

Though her position stationed her in Washington, Payne also traveled to the south to become the Defender's eyes and ears to the Civil Rights Movement. She covered stories including the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the March on Washington, but she also wrote a series of articles about the condition of the south titled "The South at the Crossroads."

Traveled as an International Reporter

In addition to her national assignments, Payne was afforded the opportunity to cover stories overseas. According to Journalism Quarterly, she became the "first African-American woman to focus on international news coverage." In the mid-1950s, the Defender heavily promoted Payne's travels and stories. Her first assignments led her to the Asian-African Conference in Bandung, Indonesia and Ghana's independence movement. Payne's 'big break' in international coverage came in 1966 when she was assigned to coverage of the African-American troops fighting in the Vietnam War. According to Journalism Quarterly, "During the three months that Payne reported from Vietnam, she went into the field, observed the school where soldiers learned guerrilla warfare, investigated American military supplies being sold on the black market and saw first hand the effects of the chemical agent orange by witnessing the death of a Vietnamese woman." Payne possessed a talent for going beyond the basic elements of journalism and exploring venues untouched by others.

After covering the Vietnam War, Payne's travels led her to the Nigerian civil war and the International Women's Year Conference in Mexico City. She also traveled to Africa on separate occasions with Secretaries of State William P. Rogers and Henry Kissenger.

Made History With National Network

In 1972 Payne entered the world of commentary and debuted as the first African-American woman radio and television commentator to be employed by a national network. While still employed as writer for the Defender, Payne was offered a job with CBS's "Spectrum." Three times a week, she created two-and-a-half minute commentaries that were heard via radio the first year and seen via television in the following years. After six years with "Spectrum," Payne moved on to "Matters of Opinion," a radio program that aired on WBBM, a CBS affiliate. She stayed with "Matters of Opinion" until 1982. In her commentaries, Payne continued her commitment to discuss topics that were important to the African-American community.

Payne's continued success had led to an associate editor position with the Defender in 1972, but her heart drew her back to Washington and international news. In 1978 Payne left the Defender after 28 years to begin a freelance career. She began a syndicated column that ran in six Black newspapers across the country.

In spite of her accomplishments, Payne was slighted in 1987 while attending a Black Caucus dinner. Representing the Black Media Services organization, she and fellow journalist Alfreda L. Madison arrived at the dinner with the understanding that tickets would be available. According to a Washington Post article, two security guards confronted the women who sat in the dining room after a long wait for tickets. The guards told Payne, who was in her seventies, and Madison that without tickets, they had to leave their seats or they would be arrested. Caucus representatives later said that the security guards must not have known who Payne and Madison were, but there was outrage for the display against two women who had opened doors for many African Americans in journalism.

Won Numerous Awards

Payne's accomplishments were celebrated throughout her career. Some of her later awards included being named "Woman of Action" in 1980 for outstanding achievements in journalism, presented to her by the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women's Club; the Candace Award of the Coalition of 100 Women which she received in 1998; and a Kappa Tau Alpha award which was presented to her at Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia in 1990.

Only a few months shy of her 90th birthday, Payne died on May 28, 1991. She wrote until her death and was continually sought out as a speaker. Throughout her career, Payne shook up the world of journalism and gave it a new look. Her writings and commentaries touched many, and whether she reached them positively or negatively, she would not be forgotten by anyone whose path she crossed. Perhaps journalist Raymond H. Boone best captured Payne's essence when he was quoted in the Washington Post as saying that Payne was "to a large degree an unsung heroine."

After Payne's death, she remained an important, though sometimes forgotten, figure in the history of American journalism. In 2002, the U.S. Postal Service released a "Women in Journalism" collection of four stamps. Payne was the only Black women featured in the collection. In 2015, biographer James McGrath Morris published Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press, which told about Payne's life and her vital role in the civil rights movement. The 2020 children's book The Power of Her Pen: The Story of Groundbreaking Journalist Ethel L. Payne by Lesa Cline-Ransome helped tell Payne's story to a new generation. The National Association of Black Journalists also created a fellowship in Payne's honor that is given annually to a "worthy journalist." Through storytelling and supporting new generations of journalists, some Americans helped keep Payne's significant legacy alive.


Born Ethel Lois Payne, on August 14, 1911, in Chicago, Illinois; died on May 28, 1991; daughter of William and Bessie (Austin) Payne. Education: Crane Junior College; Garrett Institute; Northwestern University at Evanston, Medill School of Journalism.


Chicago Defender, correspondent 1951-178: "Spectrum," CBS, commentator, 1972-78; public affairs program, "Matters of Opinion," WBBM, commentator, 1978-82; author, A Profile on Black Colleges: Roots, Rewards, Renewal, 1980; freelance writer, 1978-91; completed an oral history of her life.


Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, World Understanding Award, 1956; Newsman's Newsman award, 1954, 1967; honorary member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, 1973; Fisk University, first recipient of Ida B. Wells Distinguished Journalism Chair, 1973; National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women's Club, named "Woman of Action" for achievement in journalism, 1980; Johnson's Publishing Company, Gertrude Johnson-Williams Award, 1982; Coalition of 100 Women, Candace Award, 1988; Hampton University, Kappa Tau Alpha award, 1990.



Notable Black American Women, Gale, 1992.


Journalism Quarterly, autumn 1991, p. 528-540.

Washington Post, October 8, 1987, p. J01; June 2, 1991, p. D06.


"30 Black Americans to Celebrate During Black History Month," Parade, (February 11, 2022).

"Forgotten Heroine, Ethel Payne: Pioneer of the Black Press," Chicago Defender, (February 11, 2022).

"Review: The Reporter Ethel Payne in 'Eye on the Struggle,'" New York Times, (February 11, 2022).

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|K1606001796