Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press
Ethel Payne's gripping accounts of black life in post-World War II America provided critical information that was largely missing from mainstream journalism.
Excerpted from Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press by James McGrath Morris. Copyright © 2015. Courtesy of HarperCollins. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.
In early April 1951, Ethel Payne stood on the sidewalk before the three-story headquarters of the Chicago Defender. Situated on Indiana Avenue in the heart of Bronzeville, the paper’s three-story headquarters was fronted by a brick-and-cement facade that attempted to mask its former life as a synagogue. The halls where worshipers once reverently gathered now echoed with the sound of thunderous printing presses. The rooms reserved for contemplation and study were full of reporters on telephones, editors in conference, composers setting type, and salesmen extolling the virtue of advertising in America’s leading Negro newspaper. If the African American press was black America’s secular church, then the Defender was one of its best-known and -loved incarnations. “Everyone read the Defender,” said the South Wide activist and historian Timuel Black. “Every copy was read four or five times. People who didn’t get it would ask others to let them see it.”
In stark contrast to the Chicago Tribune, the Defender carried information that mattered to African Americans. In a typical issue that April, news of brutal police tactics in Jackson, Mississippi, the election of Arizona’s first Negro state legislators, and the publication of an article in a UNESCO bulletin by the director of the school of library science at the historically black Atlanta University all merited space. The flagship of black journalism, the paper was a chronicler of racial injustice and a consummate publisher of ascension stories that provided hope. “Oh, the Defender was Mr. Big,” said a black radio broadcaster.
Although it covered national news and had readers all across the country, the paper remained loyal to south side. If you were a black Chicagoan, you could count on the Defender to carry news of your graduation, wedding, job promotion, retirement, and death. It celebrated its city as if it were the capital of all things African American. In particular the Defender supported, and in some instances set up, civic and social Bronzeville organizations, as its readers were excluded from most of the city’s established institutions. “The things the Defender created and sustained were vital to the health of the community,” said Black. “It gave folks something to look forward to. It gave some belief that there was a land beyond this one, and hope beyond this life.”
As she faced the Defender’s building that day in April, Payne had little idea what the editors had in mind for their new hire. Louis Martin, the editor in chief who had offered Payne the job, had been vague about her potential role. Payne had no training or experience in reporting or news writing, aside from a smattering of writing courses she took at the Chicago Training School and the Medill School of Journalism. This was an almost entirely male trade and certainly the province of the young. But as she had told W. E. B. Du Bois two decades earlier, she had nerve, plenty of it. She opened the building’s glass door, walked in, and made her way to the second-story newsroom and Martin’s office.
In the Defender’s first four decades, Louis Martin was among the most successful men to have had the editorial helm of the paper aside from the founder, Robert Sengstacke Abbott. Unlike other African Americans from the South, the thirty-eight-year-old editor had a fortunate upbringing: he was educated in Catholic schools, attended a high school operated by Fisk University, and obtained a college education at the University of Michigan. In 1936, two years after getting his degree, Martin came to work as a reporter for the Defender. John H. Sengstacke, who was being groomed by his uncle Robert to take over the paper, was impressed by the young reporter and enlisted him to launch the Michigan Chronicle, rewarding him with a share of the ownership. In 1947, Martin returned to the Defender to become its editor in chief. By 1951, he was not only a part owner of the growing Sengstacke publishing company but also an important political figure whose advice was solicited by emerging black politicians as well as white politicians looking to gain support from the black community.
A natty dresser who favored a straw skimmer, Martin had a flair for the unusual and a keen eye for talent. He had seen Payne’s Japanese diary entries and knew she could write well. As he had learned the trade of journalism on the job, there was no reason to think that she couldn’t as well. He and city editor Enoch P. Waters decided to start Payne out writing features and soft news stories, the bread and butter of the inside pages of the paper and an ideal training spot for her. “All they did,” Payne said, “was to tell me to go ahead and to use my good judgment and to make it factual. That was the main thing that they asked. They didn’t want any big errors or misstatements that they would have to apologize for or even be subject to libel.”
Pen and pad in hand, Payne set out to rediscover Chicago.
Payne saw her native city with the eyes of both an insider and an outsider. Having lived in a different culture, Payne had ceased to take her own world for granted. For despite the continued segregation in the Army under MacArthur and the resolute xenophobia of the Japanese, Payne’s time as an expatriate had been a singularly liberating experience for her. Just as it had been for the soldier she had poignantly described in the Defender, Payne had been less a Negro in Japan than at any point in her life.
But in Chicago everything conspired to remind one of one’s race. As had been true for decades, the only housing open to African Americans remained in the Black Belt running south from Twenty-Third Street. Despite the continuation of the Great Migration, the city had made no accommodation for the hundreds of thousands of new arrivals. In one apartment house, for instance, a thousand people were crammed into its seven stories, many of the rooms so overcrowded that the tenants had to sleep in shifts.
An elaborate system of restrictive housing covenants, collusive real estate operators, and compliant politicians continued to keep black families bottled up. The housing apartheid was so absolute that when black families challenged the system they faced a legal struggle stacked against them and sometimes violence. Carl A. Hansberry faced this when he tried to move his family into a white area. Carl’s daughter Lorraine Hansberry immortalized their ordeal in the play A Raisin in the Sun. “You mean you ain’t read ’bout them colored people that was bombed out their place out there?” asks Mrs. Johnson, a character in the play. “Ain’t it something how bad these here white folks is getting here in Chicago! Lord, getting so you think you right down in Mississippi.”
Health care, even emergency care, was restricted. Only a few of the city’s seventy-seven hospitals would accept black patients, and did so on a limited basis, leaving only the massive, overcrowded, and understaffed cook county hospital and the African American-operated Provident hospital to provide the bulk of medical care. When Richard wright took a menial job in a Chicago hospital, the racial division of the city was brought home his first morning when he saw two long lines of women coming toward him. “A line of white girls marched past, clad in starched uniforms that gleamed white; their faces were alert, their steps quick, their bodies lean and shapely, their shoulders erect, their faces lit with the light of purpose,” Wright wrote. “And after them came a line of black girls, old, fat, dressed in ragged gingham, walking loosely, carrying tin cans of soap powder, rags, mops, brooms… I wondered what law of the universe kept them from not being mixed?”
In the spring of 1951 Payne moved back into her mother’s home on Throop Street. Despite some economic improvements brought about by wartime employment, life in South Side was much as it had been in Chicago before she left. All that had changed was Payne herself.
For Ethel Payne, journalism was love at first sight, and the Chicago Defender reciprocated. Her personality traits, her ambition, and her skills were a recipe for success. A beguiling gregariousness gained her entry, and her obvious earnestness won over the trust of sources. Her ambition, stoked by years of closed doors, gave her the energy to match younger reporters. And in the end she delivered dependable copy, the kind editors craved to fill a newspaper’s seemingly insatiable appetite for words.
In no time, her stories were taking up full pages of each week’s edition of the Defender. One week she was reporting on a trade unionist’s four-month-long trip to Africa and his observation that Africans harbor suspicion about the United States because of its treatment of Negroes. Another week she was off writing about a mason trained at the Tuskegee Institute who was donating his labor to build a house for an Italian American veteran who lost his legs in the war.
As she became more skilled in the conventions of journalism -- writing a lede, crafting a nut paragraph, and using quotations -- the editors gave her increasingly free rein. Soon Payne picked up the responsibility for an ongoing series about employment in Chicago called “Industry USA.” the subject was of immense interest to readers. Before World War II, only 9 percent of the city’s African Americans held jobs in manufacturing. Now 30 percent did.
The articles were classic Defender fare that combined journalism with advocacy. They reported on progress in interracial hiring, rewarding forward-thinking employers with good publicity; exposed the lack of progress, putting recalcitrant employers in a bad light; and offered readers a guide to employment in the city. When Payne visited Inland Steel, she reported that not only were a majority of employees African Americans but the union leadership was also black. “I saw Negroes working side by side with whites on welding machines, planking presses, cutting machines, lithographing presses, and other equipment,” she wrote. “Full integration in industry like full democracy has a long way to go, but along the forward march we can say, ‘Good work: keep going.’”
On the other hand, Payne was quick to point out where progress was absent, as at the South Side packinghouses, where 50,000 Chicagoans were employed slaughtering and processing 15,000 to 20,000 cows, 11,000 to 15,000 hogs, and thousands of calves and sheep a day. None of the big three -- Swift, Wilson, and Armour -- employed any blacks in clerical, managerial, or executive positions.
Her output was prodigious. In the July 14 issue alone, Payne had three lengthy articles, including the first of a two-part series on sumo wrestling in Japan culled from her stockpile of diary material. Although the Defender obligingly published a number of her articles about her experiences in Japan, Payne’s hope to use her research to break into a national magazine were dashed. She submitted her work to McCall’s and Ladies’ Home Journal with no luck. It was as Payne’s fictional Madge experienced. “On the whole, there are few black women who can really get into publication in the major publishing houses,” she said. “That’s just the way it is.” By the end of her first six months, Payne had churned out more than two dozen features. One could not pick up a copy of the Defender when it hit the streets on Saturdays without coming across an article with the byline “Ethel Payne.”
On a sunny November morning, in her first autumn with the paper, Payne sat in a South Side apartment watching a familiar ritual. Just as her dad used to do, Golden William Smith was finishing off his packing by placing two iconic items into his suitcase: a small whisk broom -- the kind used to brush off a suit -- and the blue uniform of a Pullman porter. Notebook in hand, Payne had come to Smith’s apartment to gather material for a three-part series on the life of a Pullman porter. She selected Smith to be the center of the series because he was a veteran whose service dated back to the years when her father, William Payne, worked as a porter. Getting ready for his 615th run on the City of Los Angeles, his forty-second year as a porter, and the beginning of his seven millionth mile on the rails, Smith was, for Payne, “the symbol of an occupation familiar to millions.”
Twenty-six years after the death of her father, Payne composed a loving and public tribute to her dad. To do so, she followed Smith from his modest apartment to the rail yard where he boarded car 1032, named Los Feliz. There she watched as he adjusted the heating controls, made the beds according to strict Pullman standards, and checked his supplies. Until the train rolled into the nearby Northwestern station and he drew back the door and stepped onto the platform to welcome his passengers, Smith fussed anxiously. Slapping the porter on the back, a buffet car worker interjected, “You’ve been married to trains so long that you see them in your sleep. And, why the night before you go out, you’re worse than an old hunting dog, fidgeting for the bugle to blow.”
As the train headed out into the night and began its forty-hour run to Los Angeles, Payne shadowed smith fluffing pillows, taking drink orders, helping his passengers settle in for the night, and standing discreetly back as a newlywed couple got off the train for a brief nighttime view of the husband’s hometown when the train paused in council bluffs. In between, Smith told Payne tales from his four decades on the rails that she recorded for use in her articles.
When they reached Los Angeles, Payne was not yet done. She accompanied Smith to the house he had purchased two years before, where his wife awaited him, and remained there overnight as their guest. He planned to work for three more years before retiring. “In the meantime,” Payne wrote, “Golden William Smith, symbol of the 10,320 porters serving thousands of customers, would continue to uphold an old tradition of fine service.”
In the early months of 1952 the Defender published her reports in a three-part series entitled “Knight of the Road” and included a photograph of Payne debarking from the train in Los Angeles. “Radiant from a luxury trip aboard the city of Los Angeles, reporter Ethel L. Payne gets an assist from the train by Porter Smith after journey to Los Angeles to get inside story on a Pullman porter.” In the pages of the Defender, Payne was becoming as well-known as the subjects of her articles.
In fact, the newspaper Guild selected Payne’s earlier series on African American employment for honorable mention in the 1951 Heywood Broun competition, named after an intrepid New York reporter. The judges said they were particularly impressed by various series they had read “written by Negroes concerning the place of the Negro in American life.”
James McGrath Morris is an author, columnist, and radio show host. His books include Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power -- which the Wall Street Journal deemed was one of the five best books on American moguls and Booklist placed on its 2010 list of the ten best biographies -- and The Rose Man of Sing Sing: A True Tale of Life, Murder, and Redemption in the Age of Yellow Journalism, a Washington Post Best Book of the Year. He is one of the founders and past president of Biographers International Organization (BIO) and makes his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico.