Civil Rights Tour: Civic Activism - Ethel Payne, Washington Correspondent

6101 16th Street NW

"I stick to my firm, unshakeable belief that the black press is an advocacy press, and that I, as a part of that press, can't afford the luxury of being unbiased."

As the Washington correspondent for Chicago Defender for 25 years, Ethel Lois Payne (1911-1991), quoted here, used journalism to raise awareness of racial discrimination and to demand justice. At her first White House press conference in February 1954, Payne questioned President Dwight D. Eisenhower about why the Howard University choir had been barred from a dinner at the Washington Coliseum by the police. The president, who was in attendance at the dinner event, chalked up the incident to a misunderstanding by the choir director. This was the first of many events and issues that the city’s white papers reported on only because Payne was in the press room.

Five months after her first White House press conference, Ethel Lois Payne asked the president if he'd support banning racial discrimination in interstate travel, drawing an angry rebuke and eliminating her chances of being called on again. "The white press was so busy asking questions on other issues that the Blacks and their problems were completely ignored," she said later. Indeed, she was the only reporter to ask how the White House would address racial discrimination in housing. Throughout her career, Payne continued to focus her attention on civil rights issues. She reported from the Columbia Heights home of Spottswood Bolling on the day of the Supreme Court's momentous decision in Bolling v. Sharpe and Brown v. Board of Education, and later covered the emerging leadership of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the desegregation of the University of Alabama, and the murder of Emmett Till.

In 1976, Payne co-chaired a national conference for Black women in the media that featured luminaries such as former presidential candidate Shirley Chisolm (D-NY). Raised in Englewood on Chicago's South Side, Payne became active in civil rights as a young woman; at 29, she received an award from the NAACP for recruiting more than 20 new members. In 1941, she joined Asa Philip Randolph's March on Washington Movement to demand compliance with a new law banning employment discrimination by federal contractors. After Randolph called off his march in exchange for an executive order establishing the Fair Employment Practices Commission, Payne was charged with making Black Chicagoans aware of the new rules and how to gain access to jobs.

In 1947, Payne was assaulted by a Chicago police officer when she defended a group of young men being arrested for loitering; shortly thereafter, in 1948, she left the city for good.

During her Washington years, Payne resided in various neighborhoods. Her last home—an apartment at The Rittenhouse on 16th Street where she lived from 1978 until her death in 1991—was described by the Washington Post as overflowing "with books, plants, posters from China and ivory plaques and figures from Africa" collected during her reporting years. Her neighbors in the building included Rev. Jesse Jackson and his wife, Jacqueline.