By Erick Johnson (The Chicago Crusader, NNPA Member)
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 white, two-story house in Chicago’s West Englewood neighborhood on the city’s south side became the home of Ethel L. Payne.
As a Black journalist, Payne broke racial barriers as a White House correspondent at a time when few Black newspapers had a bureau in the nation’s capital. During her illustrious career with the Chicago Defender, Payne grilled five U.S. presidents and met Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. By the time she died in 1991 at 79, Payne had traveled the world, won numerous awards and earned the title, “The First Lady of the Black Press.”
Not many people know that Payne was raised in Chicago’s West Englewood neighborhood, located on the city’s south side, an where many famous Blacks who made their mark in American history grew up. The house Payne lived in is a forgotten relic of her past. For 123 years, it has stood in the 6200 block of Throop Street.
Time and neglect have beset Payne’s childhood home as crime and shootings continue to force residents to leave 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.
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 in1893. 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 and her siblings was fortunate to attend schools that were better equipped and had a large white student population. She walked to then Copernicus Elementary School (its now Anna R.Langford Community 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), a massive, neoclassical building at 6130 S.Wolcott Ave.
All of these buildings remain beacons in the community, but Payne’s home is falling apart, forgotten.
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 visitby 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 are 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 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-yearold man was shot in the stomach.
Chicago’s famous Bronzeville neighorhood traditionally has drawn 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.