The first lady of the black press, first black female radio and television commentator and the first black reporter to cover the Vietnam War. All of these incredible acclamations belong to the one and only Ethel Payne yet, she goes unheard of in most history and journalism classes. After her death in 1991 the Washington Post goes on to say “had Ethel Payne not been black, she certainly would have been one of the most recognized journalists in American society. But because of the effects of discrimination in this field, she was, to a large degree an unsung heroine.” She didn’t just wake up and become the first lady of the black press she worked hard at it in 1948 is when she got her “break” into the world of reporting. Payne was a hostess for a military social club in Japan where should would document the treatment of black service men in her daily journal. She gave her journal to a writer over at the Chicago Defender (an African American newspaper) and her works were turned into a front page story and that is how her career took off.
She was originally brought on to write feature pieces for the defender but she soon took over as an investigative reporter because she knew how to get America to pay attention. Topics of race and discrimination were not seen by white American because none of their news sources covered the truth or they just didn’t care to listen. Still Payne was bold and knew how to get white Americans to see to the “black news”. At one of Eisenhower press conferences the asked him about an executive order that could end segregation across state line in train and bus travel. Eisenhower was not too happy with the question and shot back with “What makes you think I am going to give special favoritism to special interests? I am the president of all the people.” Needless to say she was froze out of every other press meeting while he was still president but, it did make white America pay attention to “black problems” instead of only going back to the news station with the predicable questions and answers they had a story that was likely new to them- problems in the African American world. Payne was able to sit at the press table for presidents from Dwight D Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan but political news was not all she covered. She worked on pieces about labor unions, the bus boycott, Little Rock Nine and the 1963 March on Washington. According to The Washington Post “she reported from 30 countries and interviewed leaders on six continents”.
She wrote for her people and spoke out against the many discriminatory things that happened to them. She brought light to African American struggles that many main media organizations ignored. As she was quoted saying from her biography “Eye on the Struggle” “We are soul folks,” she declared in 1967, “and I am writing for soul brothers’ consumption.”