PORTRAITS: The First Lady of the Black Press

This post isn’t Brookland-related, but I still think it’s worth noting. A book was recently released about a woman of whom I had only cursory knowledge. As a journalist, I should have known more, and now, thanks to my friend James McGrath Morris’s book, I do.

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Let’s go back to 1954 and a presidential press conference with Dwight Eisenhower, who looked annoyed. A feisty African American reporter named Ethel Payne had just asked him a tough question about whether his administration would support the banning of segregation in interstate transit. "The administration is trying to do what it thinks and believes to be decent and just in this country," the president said testily, "and is not in the effort to support any particular or special group of any kind." The president's curt reply drew headlines, and Ethel Payne was satisfied that she had done her job--raising serious questions about thorny problems that the administration would prefer not to answer. 

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Ethel Payne with President Lyndon Johnson. Photos from the Ethel Payne papers, Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution Archives, gift of Avis R. Johnson

It was the kind of thing Payne had been doing for the Chicago Defender since 1951, and would continue to do there and for other news organizations until her death in 1991. That attitude earned her the title of "First Lady of the Black Press." Payne's rise in journalism had been rapid and marked by solid and sometimes cheeky reportage that pulled no punches. "You are either acquiescent, which I think is wrong,” she explained, “or else you just rebel, and you kick against it. I wanted to constantly, constantly, constantly hammer away, raise the questions that needed to be raised.”

Although born and raised in Chicago, Payne became a Washingtonian and was fascinated by the city. It was her base for covering major national stories - the Montgomery Bus Boycott, desgregation at the University of Alabama, the 1963 March on Washington. She entertained Vice President Richard Nixon and his wife at her apartment on Belmont Road. But she was no homebody either. She also covered international stories, traveling to Indonesia, Ghana, Vietnam, Nigeria, China and more. 

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If you’d like to know more, please pick up a copy of Morris’s book. It is excellent. Clicking on the cover photo will take you to the Amazon page.


© Robert Malesky 2017