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Ethel Payne (1911-1991), Distinguished Alumna

One of the few African-American female graduates of the Chicago Training School (predecessor of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary), Ethel Payne is a fine example of one who “nevertheless persisted.”

Born in Chicago on August 14, 1911, Ethel Lois Payne was the fifth of six children born to Bessie and William Payne, who provided a loving and supporting home environment for their children. Her father’s death in 1926 left the family struggling with the loss of his wages as a Pullman porter, although they fared better than most African-Americans at the time. In 1930, Payne graduated from Lindblom Technical High School. Her ambition to be a writer blossomed during these early years. She had also aspired to become a lawyer, but her application to the University of Chicago Law School was denied and chances of getting into other programs were slim for African Americans during the 1930s when black students were not accepted. Payne then attended Crane Junior College briefly before entering the Chicago Training School for City, Home and Foreign Missions, a tuition-free college of the Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1934, she graduated from the Chicago Training School, where she had majored in social services. In 1939, Payne was admitted and trained at the Chicago Public Library Training School. Then Payne decided to take night courses at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, where she received recognition and encouragement for her writing skills. After this, she became increasingly involved in organizing and political activism. Payne responded to a notice in the newspaper in 1948 to work for the U.S. Army as an assistant service club director in Japan. She recorded her observations and experiences there in a diary that eventually led the way for her getting hired and published by the Chicago Defender, a black newspaper, in 1951. Here she excelled in journalistic work for next twenty-seven years, interviewing presidents (such as Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon), government officials (Henry Kissinger), and national and international celebrities such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela. In 1954, she was assigned by the Chicago Defender as their correspondent to Washington, D.C. She reported on many of the historic events occurring in the nation, such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott. She was instrumental in the success of the 1963 March on Washington. She did her utmost to be a change agent using journalism as her tool, asking the hard questions, and taking action where needed. After her work with the Chicago Defender ended, she maintained an active life traveling, lecturing, advocating, and writing until she died from a heart attack at her home in Washington on May 28, 1991.

By acting decisively and with a lot of “nerve,” as she said herself, Payne persisted in the face of racism, discrimination, and disappointment before ultimately achieving success and recognition in journalism as the “First Lady of the Black Press.” She was distinguished as the first African American woman radio and television commentator on a national network for her work on the CBS opinion program Spectrum from 1972-1978, and was the recipient of more than eighty honors and awards. In 2002, Payne was one of four journalists honored with a U.S. commemorative postage stamp.

(Condensed from: Morris, James McGrath. Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, The First Lady of the Black Press. New York, Amistad, 2015.)