Ethel L. Payne: Coined First Lady of the Black Press
How an African American Woman Paved Her Way to The White House
By: Sydney Carrington
When we think of journalism, the first people who come to mind may be the ones we see on television or in movies. People such as Nellie Bly or even Hunter Thompson, but when you hear the name Ethel Payne, what comes to mind? Nothing. Amazing how a woman so fearless and resilient as Ethel Payne could go indeterminate within American history. It
has been said that “had Ethel Payne not been Black, she certainly would have been one of the most recognized journalists in American society.” It is unfortunate and otherwise unacceptable that a woman such as Payne can be lost in history due to a physical trait that is beyond her control. I often imagine how different the mindsets and ambitions of young African American girls would be had they learned of people like Payne in grade school. If I recall correctly, the only African Americans we learned about in public school were slaves, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglas and more slaves. Payne’s dedication and commitment to journalism and the refusal to allow societal standards to dictate whether or not she succeeded as a journalist is how Payne paved her way to the White House.
Payne was known as the First Lady of the Black Press because she was the first African American woman to work for the White House Press corps. She was known to ask controversial questions, particularly questions pertaining to the Civil Rights Movement and racial injustices. She became infamous amongst politicians and was often
intentionally avoided during press conferences. Payne was present for some of America’s most transcendent events, such as the Korean and Vietnam Wars, as well as the on-going Civil Rights Movement. Payne would make a name for herself after documenting these events in the Chicago Defender, a newspaper for African American communities, and eventually being asked to travel the world with the Army Special Services Club. During this time, she would observe and bring to forefront the ways in which African American soldiers were being treated overseas.
Payne should be admired not only because of her journalistic qualities, but also for the contributions to which she has provided for this country. Payne gave all women, Black and white, the confidence to stand for something they believed in even when the odds were against them from the beginning. Payne broke barriers by entering the White House as an African American woman at a time when it was practically a crime to be either of the two. She interviewed President Eisenhower, Martin Luther King Jr., President John F. Kennedy and reported on Rosa Parks, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Her experience, credibility, and passion for journalism make her an idol and substantial influencer for all current and future journalists alike.
A True Journalist
To be a “true” journalist, one must be ethical, brave, courageous and seek truth. Furthermore, loyalty must lie with the people. These values and codes of ethics are exactly what Payne stood by and represented consistently. She presented stories that were not frequently discussed and had the ability to express these issues in a way that the public could understand and relate to. These qualities are part of the reason Payne was such a remarkable journalist and reporter.
About the Author
Sydney Carrington is a new public relations professional located in Dallas, Texas. Sydney studied journalism with a concentration in Public Relations at The University of North Texas's Mayborn School of Journalism and graduated with a B.A. in April 2021.