BRONZEVILLE — Ethel Payne was fearless. Throughout her illustrious career, the “First Lady of the Black Press” was known for asking tough questions, drawing ire from those in power.
Payne took on presidents and press secretaries, traveling the world to chronicle meetings between heads of state and conflicts in the Global South. She taught journalism at Fisk University and lent her pen to efforts to free Nelson Mandela in the late ’80s. She died in 1991.
But Payne’s grave in Mount Glenwood Cemetery in south suburban Glenwood is unmarked. It isn’t completely clear why. Thirty years later, a local travel historian has launched a crowdsourcing campaign to buy a headstone for the trailblazer.
Tammy Gibson has spent the past decade documenting historical African American sites and cemeteries of the enslaved. She came across Payne’s story while doing research on the Chicago Defender, where she’s a contributing writer.
“I’m learning about her history, her legacy and how much she meant to Chicago. … Then I found out that she was buried in an unmarked grave. When the cemetery confirmed it, it broke my heart,” said Gibson, who is raising the money with help from the National Association of Black Journalists.
Gibson requested permission from the cemetery to raise money for a proper headstone. Staffers there told her Payne had no surviving relatives, and gave Gibson the go-ahead to launch a GoFundMe. A little over $4,400 has been raised so far, putting the campaign at the halfway mark of its $8,852 goal.
Ethel Payne was born in Englewood in 1911. The daughter of a Pullman porter and a Latin teacher, her family”s presence in the city predated the first wave of the Great Migration. One of the first to integrate Lindblom High School, the future journalist wasn’t even allowed to work on the school newspaper, according to biographer James McGrath Morris, who chronicled the icon’s life in “Eyes on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, The First Lady of the Black Press.”
Payne found an ally in an English teacher who had also taught a young Ernest Hemingway when he was a student at Oak Park River Forest High School.
After graduation, Payne attended Crane Junior College with dreams of being an attorney. Those dreams were dashed when the University of Chicago Law School denied her admission due to race, according to the Chicago Defender.
Payne pivoted, enrolling in Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, where she took night classes for two years. Payne went from library assistant to Army Special Services club hostess to Chicago Defender political correspondent in a span of a decade, thanks to a chance meeting with a reporter in Tokyo so impressed with her journaling that he shared it with his editor.
Paybe spent 27 years at the Black-owned daily, rising through the ranks and eventually becoming one of three credentialed Black reporters in the White House Press Corps.
She wasn’t welcomed with open arms.
President Dwight “Eisenhower was very frustrated with her because she was asking about things he didn’t want to talk about,” Gibson said.
After Payne pressed the president about passing a law to ban segregation in interstate travel, he ignored her for the rest of his presidency and his press secretary launched an investigation into Payne in hopes of finding dirt.
By contrast, President Lyndon Johnson invited Payne to the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, even gifting her the pens used to sign the documents.
The journalist was the first Black female TV and radio commentator, working at CBS News for 10 years while receiving awards and accolades for her work. Her New York Times obituary — remarkably brief considering her expansive career — reported that her body was discovered in her Washington apartment two days after she died of a heart attack. She was 79.
Payne was recognized with a commemorative postage stamp in 2002, and in 2015 Lindblom named its journalism program after her.
“So many journalists owe their career to her. We all stand on her shoulders,” Gibson said. “This is a story that needs to be told. Whatever reason why she doesn’t have a headstone doesn’t matter. I wanted to do something now.”
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