By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
She traveled the world, broke racial barriers, won numerous awards and mingled with Nelson Mandela, heads of state and even British royalty. At the end of her life, Ethel Payne, known to millions as “the First Lady of the Black Press,” died alone and with little money. In Mt. Glenwood Cemetery on the Far South Side, she has been buried in an unmarked grave for 25 years. For over two decades, visitors have been unable to find the final resting place of a trailblazer who lay in obscurity after living a life of extraordinary achievements.
It’s a sad ending to the life of a crusader and Black journalist who was a White House correspondent for the Chicago Defender at a time when the nation’s highest office denied press credentials to members of the Black Press. Few Black newspapers could afford to have a news bureau or a correspondent in the nation’s capitol, but for nearly forty years, Payne was in Washington asking tough questions that many journalists were afraid to ask America’s sitting presidents. Many of those questions were about integration and civil rights. Despite efforts by some White House officials, Payne became the first Black woman to secure a press pass to cover the oval office.
In her personal life, Payne was known as a social butterfly, who at her Washington, D.C. apartment hosted a party that included Vice President Richard Nixon and his wife, Pat as guests. But when the parties were over and no one was around, Payne often faced a harsh reality that many Black journalists have encountered for decades. Despite the numerous bylines and global admiration, Payne was often broke and seeking help from donors to pay her bills and fund her trips for assignments. Her struggles are chronicled in a book by noted author James McGrath Morris, “Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press.” The book was released in 2015.
When she learned the Nixon’s planned to attend her party, Payne did not have any furniture in her apartment, according to McGrath. A manager of the defunct Hecht’s Department store shipped her a truckload of furniture and gave her a line of credit. It’s not clear whether Payne paid off the debt, but after reading about the financial woes that plagued her life, readers get a sense that money problems were as common as Payne’s many bylines. Though she had little money, Payne had a reputation of being a generous humanitarian and fierce advocate of the Black Press and America’s Black leaders.
On May 28, 1991, she died of a heart attack in her Washington, D.C. apartment. According to McGrath, a devoted friend Shirley Small-Rogeau found her dead on the floor. Payne’s closest friends wanted her funeral to be at the esteemed National Cathedral, the same place where similar services were held for many prominent individuals, including Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford. Because the facility’s bishop John Walker, who knew Payne well, was no longer there when she died, surviving relatives and friends believed they had little chance of convincing the new clergy to allow them to hold Payne’s funeral. Instead, services were held at the Zion Baptist Church.
That’s where McGrath’s book ends. Last April, after a Crusader reporter wrote about Payne’s crumbling childhood home in West Englewood, the author told the Crusader that Payne’s resting place was at Mt. Glenwood. It’s the same resting place for the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam. After an hour of searching for her grave near an old water pump, a reporter called the cemetery’s office, where a lady confirmed that Payne was six feet under with no marker.
Last April, McGrath tried to reach one of Payne’s nephews, who reportedly lives in San Diego, but those efforts have been unsuccessful.
Payne was born in Chicago in 1911. She was raised in a two-story house in the 6200 block of South Throop Street in West Englewood, a neighborhood that was populated by white residents before the Great Migration. Down the street, she attended Copernicus Elementary School (now Landford Academy). She also attended Lindblom Math and Science Academy, the same alma mater as ABC Channel 7 anchor Cheryl Burton.
In her lifetime, Payne won numerous awards. In 2002, the U.S. Postal Service honored Payne on its 37-cent commemorative post-age stamps. In 1973, she was the first recipient of the Ida B. Wells Distinguished Journalism Chair at Fisk University. In 1982, Johnson Publishing Company bestowed on Payne the Gertrude Johnson-Williams Award. That same year, she joined many prominent journalists on the National Association of Black Journalists “Hall of Fame.” The organization established the “Ethel Payne Fellowships,” for journalists seeking to do reporting in Africa, but the scholarships were discontinued after a decade because the money ran out.
Many young Americans do not know who Payne was and her contributions to the Black Press and Black America.
“She used her skills not to acquire power for herself, but to activate powers in others,” said James A. Joseph, who according to McGrath, gave the eulogy at Payne’s funeral. “In her work, she was simply not reporting the news. People in Africa, Asia and elsewhere have lost an authentic citizen of the world.”