On August 14, 1911, Ethel Lois Payne was born to William A. Payne and Bessie Payne (née Austin) in Chicago, Illinois; she was the fifth of their six children. Her father, who worked as a Pullman porter, and her mother, a teacher of Latin, were professionals. Her paternal grandparents and maternal grandparents were enslaved, respectively, in Tennessee and Kentucky. Her father moved to the North during The Great Migration.
The Payne family lived on the South Side of Chicago, their Englewood home located across the street from Greater Saint John AME Church of Chicago, where they were active. Tragically, William contracted a deadly virus from handling soiled linens and clothing while working as a porter and passed away when he was only forty-six years old; Ethel was twelve years old. In order to support their family, Bessie opened their home to house boarders, performed domestic work and taught.
An insatiable reader, especially of the works by Paul Laurence Dunbar, Ethel attended Copernicus Elementary School and Lindblom Technical High School, which were located in a White community of Chicago. She and her siblings experienced racial discrimination and assault in this community, even having rocks hurled at them. This influenced her to want to pursue a career in law, protecting those, such as her frail brother, who were less able. Despite those heinous encounters, Payne performed well academically, especially in history and English. One of her English teachers was very supportive of her, encouraging and assisting her in getting her first article published in Abbott’s Monthly, a literary magazine.