Award-winning journalist Ethel L. Payne is commemorated on a U.S. postage stamp that began being issued in September 2002 as part of the “Women in Journalism” series.
Payne, known as the first lady of the black press, combined advocacy with journalism as she reported on the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s. In 1972, she became the first female African-American commentator
employed by a national network.
Payne was born in Chicago on August 14, 1911. Her journalism career began rather unexpectedly while she was working as a hostess at an Army Special Services club in Japan, a position she had taken in 1948. 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 the early 1950s, Payne moved back to Chicago to work full time for the Defender. After working there for two years, she took over the paper’s one-person bureau in Washington, D.C. 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.
Her “box seat of history” as she called it, also allowed Payne to see the successes of the Civil Rights Movement. President Lyndon Johnson twice invited her to join him at the White House when he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Payne covered seven U.S. presidents as a Washington correspondent for Sengstacke Newspapers and reported from Africa and Vietnam. NABJ’s foreign correspondent fellowship is named in her honor.
Ethel Payne died on May 28, 1991, in Washington, DC.
Printed in Volume 1 Issue 10