Fearless Civil Rights Reporter
November 7, 2012
ETHEL PAYNE (1911-1991)
Ethel Lois Payne was born on August 14, 1911 in Chicago to William and Bessie Austin Payne.
She was the granddaughter of slaves. Her father was a Pullman Porter who moved to Chicago from Memphis, Tennessee, as a part of a great black migration.
Payne was the fifth of six children, with four sisters and one brother who was chronically frail and often bullied by other boys. Payne would leap into the fight to protect him.
Her father died from a disease contracted while handling soiled laundry on the trains when she was 12, leaving their family without financial means because her mother didn’t work.
The Paynes were then forced to open their home to boarders, with two or three people sleeping in each of the bedrooms, and Ethel’s mother began teaching high school Latin and cleaning other people’s homes, but she still managed to encourage Payne’s early talent for writing. 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.
Payne attended Lindblom High School in a white school district and endured taunts, name-calling and rocks thrown at her while walking through a segregated neighborhood every day. Payne excelled in English and history, with her English teacher urging her to write essays and stories.
Payne’s childhood dream was to become a civil rights lawyer. In a quote from her diary, she writes “…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.’”
She attended Crane Junior College briefly, and then the Chicago Training School, which later merged with Garrett Theological Seminary. Unfortunately, she was denied admission to the University of Chicago Law School because of her race.
Payne then worked as a matron in a girl’s reform school and as clerk at the Chicago Public Library.
She became active in local civil rights affairs and was appointed by the governor of Illinois to serve on the state’s Human Rights Commission to fight against residential property in her neighborhood being developed for commercial use.
She said: “I just liked to see people get stirred up over issues, and people to exercise voting rights and all of that. I was beginning to have the seeds of rebellion churning up in me.”
In 1948, Payne responded to a Red Cross advertisement to serve American forces in post-war Japan as a hostess for an Army Special Services club, organizing recreational activities and entertainment and ultimately leaving behind her home, family and fiancé.
Payne kept a diary, which she gave while in Japan to Alex Wilson, a reporter for the Chicago Defender. The diary was published in the U.S. as an expose of illegal and immoral practices within the military.
The Chicago Defender Editor-in-Chief Louis E. Martin was so impressed with her writing style that he hired Payne as a full-time feature reporter in 1951. She was the aggressive reporter who found a hard news angle in any story that was given to her. For instance, one of her feature stories uncovered a crisis in the adoption of African-American babies, and won the Illinois Press Association award for the best news story in 1952. After that, Martin gave her free rein to undertake investigative projects.
Payne was later sent to Washington, D.C., to take over the Defender’s one-person bureau in 1953, arriving just in time to cover the Army-McCarthy hearings.
In 1954, she became chief of the newspaper’s Washington bureau, and continued her focus on civil rights issues. She began tracking the historic measures taken by the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House. She covered influential events as the Montgomery Bus Boycott; the forced desegregation...