Edith Payne

Edith Payne was born in Chicago in 1911. Both of her parents were descendants of former slaves. She went to an integrated school but had few African-American classmates. She was inspired to pursue a writing career by one of her teachers. She studied journalism at Northwestern.

After college, she worked for a while as a librarian. She also became active in the NAACP. At the end of World War II, she moved to Tokyo where she supported soldiers on duty.

The urge to write continued, but there were few opportunities for women journalists of color. When a reporter from The Chicago Defender visited Tokyo, she allowed the reporter to read her journal. She had detailed in her journal stories of her experiences and those of African-American journalists. This led to her breakthrough as a journalist.

Returning to the U.S., she worked as a reporter for The Chicago Defender for two years. They then moved to Washington DC, to serve as the paper’s lone correspondent in the nation’s capital. She also became the first African-American woman to report on international news. She was just one of three African-American women to be a member of the White House Press Corps.

During her 25 years as a journalist with the Chicago Defender, she covered all of the major civil rights events. She reported on the experiences of African-American soldiers in Vietnam. President Lyndon Johnson invited her to join in the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and she was given one of the pens in tribute to her stories that led to the passage of the Act.

Later she became the first African-American commentator on television. During her lifetime, she was not well known outside of the press establishment. In 2022, the White House Correspondents’ Association created an award in her honor along with Alice Dunnigan, another African-American pioneer in journalism. In 2023, the briefing lectern used for White House press briefings was named in honor of her and Alice Dunnigan.

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“Journalism is what we need to make democracy work.” – Walter Cronkite

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