When pioneering journalist Ethel Payne attended newly integrated Lindblom High in the late 1920s, she wasn’t allowed to work for the student newspaper. She went on to break racial barriers to cover seven U.S. presidents from the White House.
“It just wasn’t the code at the time,” the trailblazer nicknamed “first lady of the black press” says in a biography released last month by HarperCollins. Payne is credited with melding activism and journalism to help propel the civil rights movement as a White House correspondent in the 1950s and 60s.
The West Englewood native found support with an English teacher at Lindblom, according to “Eye On The Struggle: Ethel Payne, The First Lady of the Black Press,” by author James McGrath Morris.
The esteemed teacher, Margaret Dixon, had previously taught in Oak Park, where her students included the teenaged Ernest Hemingway.
“She encouraged me to write, and she asked me to do little short stories,” said Payne, who soared from Lindblom into the history books.
One of the first blacks to join the White House press corps, Payne, who built a reputation needling sitting presidents about the nation’s racial equality agenda, was honored this week by the South Side high school where she graduated in January 1930.
Lindblom’s journalism program has been renamed the Ethel Payne Journalism Center. Payne died in 1991 at the age of 79. The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in her honor in 2002.
Payne joined the presidential press corps in 1951, with the Chicago Defender. Over the course of 18 years with the Defender, she chronicled every aspect of the civil rights movement — from the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the 1963 March on Washington. She was with the Defender from 1951 to 1958 and again from 1967 to 1978.
In 1972, she became the first black woman commentator hired by a national radio and TV network, and was with CBS from 1972 to 1982.
Ethel Payne chatting with President John F Kennedy in 1962, when she took a hiatus from journalism to work as a deputy field director for the Democratic National Committee. From the recently published “Eye On The Struggle: Ethel Payne, The First Lady of the Black Press.”
“Her education right here at Lindblom helped prepare her to cover some of the most crucial events in modern American history. Commemorating the Journalism Center in her name is a befitting honor,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement.
Payne spent many years as a war correspondent, reporting from nearly every major country except the Soviet Union and Australia. She was the only black correspondent at the 1956 Bandung Conference in Indonesia, covered the Nigerian-Biafran War and Vietnam War, and accompanied Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on a six-nation tour of Africa. Her friends included heads of state.
“Her entertaining of Vice President Richard Nixon and his wife in her Washington home in 1957 was described by Jet Magazine as ‘the first time a vice president had socialized in the home of a Negro,'” Morris said.
“Particularly significant was her work as a journalist in the 1950s, challenging President Eisenhower at news conferences and forcing mainstream media to cover race issues that were being ignored,” he said. “It’s the whole notion of who has a seat at the table matters. White reporters weren’t asking these questions. And when she asked them, they were forced to report on them.”
Payne took classes at community colleges and at Northwestern University after graduating from Lindblom but reached the pinnacle of her career without ever completing her college degree. She also taught at Jackson State and Fisk universities.
“It’s been really exciting to learn about the impact Ethel Payne had, and how that can inform our students’ choices,” said Alan Mather, principal of Lindblom, where Morris briefly set up shop in an office two years ago as he researched the biography.
“It’s amazing to think she attended Lindblom at a time when this school was struggling to overcome many of the biases that people held and persevered. We need our students to know the way that has been paved for them by people like Ethel Payne,” Mather said.