By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
The roof is coming apart. The creaky wooden porch is aging with growing cracks. And the navy blue paint that once adorned the steps is peeling away.
Nearly 100 years ago, this two-story white clapboard house on South Throop Street in West Englewood became the home of Ethel L. Payne. As a Black journalist, she broke racial barriers as a White House correspondent. She grilled five U.S. presidents and met royalty during an illustrious career with the Chicago Defender. By the time she died in 1991 at 79, Payne had traveled the world, won numerous awards and earned the title, the “The First Lady of the Black Press.”
Not many people know that Payne was raised in West Englewood. The house she lived in is a forgotten relic of Payne’s past, that stands in the 6200 block of Throop Street. The house has been there for 123 years.
Time and neglect have beset Payne’s childhood home as crime and shootings continue to leave vacant houses in the neighborhood. It’s where Blacks who were fortunate enough to afford a home in the area worked hard to live the American dream after fleeing racism in the South. But what was once a symbol of pride, Payne’s childhood home is now a piece of history that’s crumbling. It’s decaying frame represents the struggle to preserve the legacy of America’s Black trailblazers.
Payne was born in Chicago in 1911. Her parents came from Memphis, Tennessee and were among a few Blacks who lived in the city before the population in the “Black Belt” exploded during the great Migration years later.
Payne’s father, William A. Payne worked in the union Stockyards before he secured a job as a Pullman Porter. Payne’s mother, Bessie, a Latin scholar from Indiana, was a housewife.
The family had four children. Ethel was the second youngest of six children. She had four sisters and one brother. By the time they settled into Englewood, the neighborhood had become integrated, but racism was still rampant in other areas of the city.
The Paynes lived in various homes in Englewood until they purchased a wooden house that was built in 1893. It still sits among a row of small, four-room houses on Throop Street. The Payne family was among several people who lived on a street that was known as “the row.”
Across the street, the family attended Greater St. John AME Church, the oldest Black church in Englewood. In her neighborhood, Payne was fortunate to attend schools that were better equipped and had a large white student population. She walk- ed to then Copernicus Elementary School (its now Landford Academy) just three blocks down the street. When she didn’t have enough money for the streetcar, Payne walked to Lindblom Math and Science Academy (It was then called Robert Lindblom Technical High) at 6130 S. Wolcott Ave.
All of these buildings remain beacons in the community.
Payne’s childhood home is 700 square feet. According to property records, it has two bedrooms and one bathroom. In comparing the house to an old photo of a very young Payne standing in front of it with her brother, one can see that the front porch was enclosed to enlarge the living room.
The median home value for homes in Englewood is $75,600, according to zillow.com. Property records show that Payne’s childhood home property is not up for sale and the home appeared occupied during a recent visit by a reporter from the Chicago Crusader. The reporter knocked on the door several times, but no one responded.
On the outside, the house is in need of repairs. Years of rust cover the iron railings on the porch. Chunks of concrete have been chipped off the porch steps. The shingles on the roof appear loose and unsecured.
The house sits between two other old homes that are in better shape. Their polished exteriors seem to have been renovated in recent years. Overall, the block where Payne played on the street has decaying homes and empty lots where garbage litters the overgrown grass.
Over the years, Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events have placed crimson-colored markers in front of homes where prominent Blacks have stayed. There’s one on Vincennes Avenue where Nat King Cole once lived. There’s also ones marking the homes of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, Aviator Bessie Coleman, Journalist Ida B. Wells and Harold Washington, Chicago’s first Black mayor. But there is no such marker in front of Payne’s childhood home.
Tourists or history buffs are unlikely to visit the area. Among Chicago’s neighborhoods, Englewood continues to have one of the highest rates of violent crimes. On March 31, a man was shot and stabbed in the area. On the same day, two men were shot in Englewood. On March 30, a 20-year- old man was shot in the stomach.
Bronzeville has been drawing the most attention from Chicago’s most prominent Black historians. Because of scarce resources to preserve relics located outside the “Black Belt,” there is little hope to preserve Payne’s childhood home in Englewood as an important relic to her legacy. It’s a concern that historians agree needs to be addressed.
“It’s important for folks to know about the legacy of famous Blacks from Chicago,” said Lorenzo Young, a Black historian who conducts tours in Bronzeville.