By Taylor Mullaney
When Ethel Payne was a student at Lindblom High School in West Englewood nearly a century ago, she published exactly one article for her school’s newspaper. But, according to biographer James McGrath Morris, Payne was never allowed on the newspaper’s staff.
As a black student during a time when Chicago was deeply segregated, Payne was prohibited from regularly writing articles for the student newspaper. Years later, Payne would become a pioneering journalist of the civil rights era. She reported for the Chicago Defender and earned a title as the “First Lady of the Black Press.”
Thursday evening, her alma mater, Lindblom Math and Science Academy, will dedicate its new journalism classroom to Payne, who attended the school from 1926 to 1930. The dedication is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. at Lindblom’s Keeler Hall, located at 6130 S. Wolcott Ave., followed by James McGrath Morris’ reading from his new biography about Payne at 6 p.m.
“We want her to be a model for our students,” said Alan Mather, Lindblom’s principal. “What she had to overcome to get to where she was, we felt it was a great message for our own students every day.”
According to Mather, Lindblom’s engineering and journalism students have joined forces to usher the school’s journalism program into a new digital era. In the 2015-2016 school year, the school will use the new journalism space, designed by its engineering students, which will include a multimedia center and a green room.
Mather first heard about Payne from Morris, who contacted the school while conducting research for his new book, “Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press.” Morris plans to spend the day at Lindblom speaking with students on Thursday.
According to Morris, Lindblom High School had a profound effect on Payne. At the time Payne attended the school, a majority of its students were white.
“It prepared her for a life in which she would work in a white culture as an aggressive reporter,” Morris said.
Morris added that he hopes learning about Payne will inspire students at Lindblom to believe in their own abilities to create societal change.
“Part of the reason we write stories like this is to empower people,” Morris said. “Writing about Ethel Payne and others…is a reminder that these movements are made by everyday people, very often kids just in high school…I’m hoping that some student at Lindblom might say, ‘Gee, this is also possible for me.’”
Sam Dudek, who has taught journalism at Lindblom for seven years, said he hopes the space, dedicated in Payne’s honor, will help prepare his students for the demands of journalism in today’s world.
“With the new room we’re creating and the new technology, I’m hoping we can explore better and newer facets of journalism from photography to video to television to online to multimedia,” Dudek said.
Principal Mather said he hopes people from Lindblom, Englewood and the greater Chicago education community will attend the dedication and book reading, which will include a welcome video recorded by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Moving forward, Morris said he hopes Payne’s story will remain an example for Lindblom’s kids of journalism’s ability to affect people’s lives for the better.
“What I want students to get is that journalism isn’t merely a matter of reporting the news,” Morris said. “Journalism is a change-maker—that the power that the press has…to illuminate injustices—is one of its most important roles in a democracy. And Ethel Payne fulfilled that without in any way betraying the tenets of journalism.”