The original Payne Elementary School was built in 1896 to serve African American students. At that time, Washington, DC schools were segregated by race. As the city grew, many of the black schools became overcrowded and fell into disrepair, while nearby white schools were renovated and operated under capacity.
In the late 1940s, parents of Payne Elementary students joined other working class African American parents living east of the Anacostia River to speak out about the deplorable conditions of their aging schools. They led a series of protests, during which they kept their children home from school. Their activism contributed to the landmark 1954 court case Bolling vs Sharpe that ended DC school segregation.