In 1954, Ethel Payne was a reporter for The Chicago Defender, the biggest black-run newspaper in the nation. The Defender had sent her to Washington. She’d had a White House press credential for 3 months, the 3rd black reporter ever to do so, but hadn’t ventured to ask any questions.
According to biographer James McGrath Morris, her voice was “quavering” when she finally called “Mr President! Mr President!” President Eisenhower, picking her out from the 200 reporters at the press conference, smiled and nodded to her.
She didn’t toss him a softball.
Earlier in the week, the Republican Party had thrown a big “Lincoln Day” fund-raiser in Uline Arena (now the Washington Coliseum) with entertainment including the blackface minstrel act of comic Jack Powell, and choirs from Emory, Duke, and Howard Universities.
When the Howard choir’s bus got to the entrance, the police wouldn’t let it through, though the Emory and Duke buses had gone through. The police said the Howard bus had to use a different entrance on the other side, so the bus went there. Again police wouldn’t let the bus through. An officer said he’d talk to someone running the event, so the choir waited. While they waited another police officer said they had to move, because the president’s limo was expected soon.
At this point the Howard music dean sickened of the runaround, and told the driver to take them back to school.
So when Eisenhower nodded to Payne, she said “Mr. President, last Friday evening at the Lincoln Day box supper at the arena, the Howard University choir, which was scheduled to sing, was barred from the hall by District police.”
“The Howard University choir, even though they had their instructions, and had followed out those instructions. Consequently, they were forced to return to the campus without appearing on the program; but in the meantime, two other singing groups, the Duke and Emory University glee clubs, were admitted without incident. I wonder if you had been informed of that, and if you had looked into it.”
After conferring briefly with his press secretary: “I am just told, for the first time that I have heard about this, I am told by Mr. Hagerty that the bus driver was instructed to go around to the door by which I entered, and he refused to go around to that place.
“I hope there is no connection between those two facts! But anyway, that is just what I have been informed. I would say this: if that choir was barred by the reason that you seem to fear, of anything about race or of color or anything of that kind, I will be the first to apologize to them. I just don’t believe that could have happened.”
The conference moved on. Later, other reporters mobbed Payne, wanting to know about the incident, which they hadn’t heard of. This resulted in stories headlined “EISENHOWER MAY APOLOGIZE IN MIX-UP ON NEGRO CHOIR” (New York Herald Tribune), “RACIAL INCIDENT CRITICIZED BY EISENHOWER” (Los Angeles Times) and “OFFERS APOLOGY: IKE BLAMES MIXUP FOR CHOIR “BAN” (Washington Post).
I learned about this from McGrath’s Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, First Lady of the Black Press. He says Payne was pleased to have brought the issue forward, and pleased (and worried) to hear she was now the “’most feared’ Negro journalist in Washington.” In Ethan Michaeli’s book The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America, he writes “Not only was Payne impressed with Ike’s courteous response, she felt encouraged to ask more probing questions in the future.”
Maybe so. I am a lot less impressed with Eisenhower’s response. At the presser, he repeated Hagerty’s claim that the bus driver refused to go to the second entrance. (Their fault!) He belittled the incident by pretending he was afraid the Howard choir refused to go through the same entrance as Eisenhower. He said he didn’t believe it could have happened as Payne said. And said he would apologize if it were true.
Yes, the timeless, dreaded Sorry If. Eisenhower does not seem to have followed up, as far as I can tell.
It was 1954, and as the headlines show, even a Sorry If was noteworthy in a case like this. It would be nice if the choir had gotten the apology they deserved, but I’ll bet it was at least true that the police at the arena got in trouble – for putting Eisenhower on the spot.