Edith Lee Payne – A moment in time, a moment in history

In the year of 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his now famous “I Have A Dream” speech. 12-year-old Edith Lee Payne was in attendance, standing near the front when photographer Rowland Scherman captured a photo of young Edith and her mother holding a banner reading “March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom.” While the photo was taken in 1963, Edith did not know about the picture until 2008 when her cousin saw the picture in a black history month calendar and recognized Edith’s face.

Edith was born and raised in Detroit, she lived the dream that Dr. King spoke about. Her neighborhood was at that time integrated and everyone went to the same schools. On occasion, they worshiped together, drank out of the same water fountains that didn’t read “colored only” on it. Unlike Rosa Parks, in Detroit, they rode on city buses with no problems. As a young girl, Edith had no idea that a few hundred miles away, people who looked like her were being put in horrific situations with little to no freedom, the day of the March in Washington D.C, Payne said she heard things that day that did not pertain to her life at all. Payne said in an interview that “thanks to her mother, she had never known racism or discrimination or the emotional pain at the root of the civil rights movement.”

10 years after the march, Payne went back to Washington to visit her aunt, she got lost and asked a police officer named, Ronald Payne, for help. After two weeks passed they got married and moved to Landover, MD and had one son. This is where Edith really felt the impact of what the march was all about. She could not get a job anywhere, she could type 60 words a minute and took dictation; she wanted to be a secretary. She remembers that she would get to an employer and they would tell her that the “Job just isn’t right for her” or that “The job is already filled.” Edith finally realized that it was because she was black. She returned home to Detroit while her husband stayed in D.C. She now faced the new Detroit alone, one filled with violence and riots. This unprecedented violence is the violence that killed her innocent 20-year-old son who was sitting in a parking lot when a gang fight broke out. Edith who had lost her son eventually was gifted with a daughter.

Payne has had many interviews and recognition, the banner that was in the famous photograph was preserved by her mother, but after her passing in 1993, Edith took over and spent many hours figuring out what she would do with it. Edith chose to donate the banner to become part of the National Museum of African American History and Culture and of the 37,000 artifacts and pieces of all of the pain, pride, and achievements of the documented history of African Americans.

Through the Month of March, the Rockford Housing Authority is recognizing the countless contributions that women have made to our nation. WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH is the history of women in the United States, the state of Illinois and our community. By way of exploring these important stories, you will able to understand our nation’s history and explore the remarkable legacies of American women.

Through letters, photographs, film, and other primary sources of the Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum you will join in commemorating and joining in celebration of the vital role of women in American history. https://womenshistorymonth.gov/