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The Story of Daniel A. Payne and Our School


The History of Payne Elementary School

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.

The DC School Board finally recognized the need for structural changes to Payne Elementary. In the 1950s and 1960s, several ideas were attempted to relieve overcrowding such as placing kindergarten students on a 4-day schedule and  “borrowing” a floor from a nearby school. They also tried establishing portable units (trailers), which finally led to the creation of permanent annexes to the existing building. In 1983, a fire broke out destroying the original building, but the annexes remained undamaged and students moved into these buildings permanently. 

The building structure remained unchanged until a 2014 modernization transformed the facility into a modern learning environment. Over two consecutive summers, every instructional, administration, and auxiliary space was renovated. Information technology systems were added to every classroom, including specialized systems for students in Payne’s Deaf and Hard of Hearing program. Finally, the construction of a new walkway and an elevator made the school accessible to individuals with physical disabilities.

Original Payne Elementary School

Courtesy of Sumner Archives, Webb Collection

School Divisions Map, c. 1900s

In 1906, when Payne Elementary exceeded its capacity by 214 students, there were nine school divisions that educated white students (red labels) and only four divisions that educated black students (blue labels). 

Courtesy of Sumner Archives

Architectural Drawings of the Original Payne School, 1895

The original building had eight classrooms, four on the first floor and four on the second floor.

Courtesy of DC Public Schools

The Washington Post, February 9, 1953

Payne parents led a series of strikes to protest the overcrowded conditions of their children’s school. In 1953, the president of Payne PTA told The Washington Post, “I think most of the people know that we are right, both white and colored.”

Courtesy of DC Public Library, Washingtoniana Collection

Payne Fire, 1983

After a fire broke out, the original school building was eventually demolished. Today, Payne Elementary’s tennis courts rest in its footprint.

Courtesy of James Lloyd and Jen Harris

Peterbug MatthewsWell-known community member Mr. John Matthews, known as “Peterbug,” was born in DC and grew up on 12 1/2 Street, SE. He attended segregated DC public schools, and went on to master the art of shoe making. In the mid 1970s, he opened his business, Peterbug Shoe Repair Academy on 1320 E Street, SE. In addition to establishing a successful business, Peterbug taught his highly skilled trade to young people in the community and shared stories of the neighborhood with his customers.

…Payne was crowded. It was the only [neighborhood] school that accepted black children at that time…Before [schools desegregated] you could not go, I could not go to Bryan or Buchannan. How about this? After 1954, they started letting [black] people in…

Sam BardleyMr. Bardley is a life-long DC resident who graduated from Payne Elementary School in 1986. He grew up in the surrounding neighborhood and spent his days with friends participating in the Gifted and Talented program and playing basketball. He was returning from a field trip in 1983 when, to his surprise, he saw his school on fire. His family stills lives in the neighborhood today, and his daughter attends Payne Elementary.

We had a lot of fun in 3rd grade. They just instituted the Gifted and Talented program and I got put into that…they let us do more creative stuff like sculpture, advanced mathematics, and things like that…Ms. Lee really pushed me [to participate in the program].

James LloydMr. Lloyd (left), who retired as a DC firefighter, was assigned to Engine 8, located down the street from Payne Elementary. In 1983, he was among the first to respond to the rising smoke pouring out of the school’s roof. His crew of 79 firefighters successfully put out the two-alarm fire. The fire was blamed on faulty wiring from a recent renovation. All 290 students were safely evacuated, but this incident led to the demolition of the 1896 building.

I was cleaning paintbrushes out back of the firehouse. It was spring cleaning and we were doing a little painting in the morning, and about at 11 o’clock smoke started filling the parking lot so I started looking around and a lady on 16th Street sitting on her back porch says, ‘I think it's coming from the school!’ So I ran through the firehouse, stood out front, and the whole entire attic [of the school] was on fire. Just that quick.

Virginia ByrdIn 1964, Ms. Byrd began teaching at Payne Elementary and continued doing so for over 40 years. She used her love of tennis as a teaching tool, coordinated multiple after-school clubs, and led field trips that took students around the city and even once to Disney World.

We had a very fine faculty. It was like a family…We had excellent students at Payne, always willing to work hard…I enjoyed my 44 years of teaching at Payne. Every day I learned from the children and they learned from me.

The Legacy of Daniel A. Payne

In 1811, more than 40 years before the Civil War, Daniel Alexander Payne was born free in Charleston, South Carolina. Having more rights than most African Americans, he received an education and opened his first school at age 19.

“Spelling was a delightful exercise of my boyhood. In this I excelled…History was my great delight. Of geography, map-drawing, English grammar, and composition I knew nothing because they were not taught in any of the schools for colored children. I therefore felt the need of knowledge in these directions – but how was I to obtain it?” —Daniel Payne, Recollection of Seventy Years

In the aftermath of Nat Turner’s Rebellion, a violent slave revolt, Payne was forced to close his school and move north. After his ordination into the African Methodist Episcopal ministry, he continued to educate and support people of color, freed and enslaved.

“I am opposed to slavery, not because it enslaves the black man, but because it enslaves man.”  —Daniel Payne, Slavery Brutalizes Man 

In 1856, Daniel Payne and other leaders of the African Methodist Episcopal Church took ownership of Wilberforce University. He was then selected as the university’s leader.

At the time of Payne’s death in 1893, Frederick Douglass, well known abolitionist and statesman, wrote remarks on Daniel A. Payne’s life and legacy. 

“I consider it an honor to have known Bishop Daniel A. Payne…he gave his helping hand to all mankind.”  —Frederick Douglass

Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne, 1890s

Courtesy of Library of Congress

Timeline of  Daniel A.  Payne

1811: Birth

Daniel Alexander Payne is born on February 24, 1811 in Charleston, South Carolina 

1823: Youth

At the age of 12, and after the deaths of both parents, Daniel Payne enters the workforce and works as a carpenter, shoe merchant, and tailor.

1830: First school

Payne opens his first school for black children when he is 19 years old.

“It consisted of 3 children, for each of whom [I] was paid fifty cents a month. I also taught 3 adult slaves at night, at the same price, thus making my monthly income from teaching only three dollars.”  —Daniel Payne, Recollection of Seventy Years

A few months later, Payne closes his school to seek better payment. He is recommended to a wealthy slave-owner seeking the services of a free, educated man of color to accompany him on an upcoming trip to the West Indies. 

“If you will go with me, the knowledge that you will acquire of men and things will be of far more value to you than the wages I will pay you. Do you know what makes the difference between the master and the slave? Nothing but superior knowledge.”  —Slaveowner seeking Daniel Payne’s employment, Recollection of Seventy Years

Payne listens to the advice above but does not accept the position. Instead he reopens his school. This time he attracts so many students that they outgrow their building. Payne moves the school to a new location.

1831: Nat Turner’s Rebellion

Nat Turner leads his fellow slaves in a revolt in Southampton County, Virginia. In August 1831, Turner and his rebels kill nearly 60 people, most of whom are white slave owners. The rebels free the slaves. Nat Turner is eventually caught and executed.

Photo Courtesy of Library of Congress

1835: South Carolina Bill No. 2639

Nat Turner’s Rebellion prompts law makers to severely limit the rights of black people. Under this bill, it is unlawful to teach any person of color, free or enslaved, to read or write.

“…And if a free person of color or slave shall keep any school, or other place of instruction, for teaching any slave or free person of color to read or write, such free person of color or slave shall be liable to [a fine not exceeding one hundred dollars], imprisonment and corporal punishment…”  —From South Carolina Bill No. 2639

Payne closes his school, moves north, and enrolls in the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

1839: African Methodist Episcopal Church

Daniel A. Payne is ordained the first black minister in the Lutheran Church in Fordsboro, New York. A few years later, he leaves the Lutheran Church and joins the African Methodist Episcopal.

1842: Philadelphia Vigilance Committee

Payne leads the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee. Its purpose is to aid slaves escaping the South, trying to reach freedom in Canada. The Committee provides food, clothing, shelter, and other assistance.

1847: Marriage

Payne marries his first wife, Julia Ferris, who dies a year later during childbirth.

1853: African Methodist Episcopal Church Bishop

Payne is elected 6th bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He marries his second wife, Eliza J. Clark.

1856: Wilberforce University

Bishop Payne is selected to lead Wilberforce University in Ohio, making him the first African American to lead a university.

Photo Courtesy of Library of Congress

1893: Death

Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne dies in Xenia, Ohio on November 2, 1893. He is buried in Laurel Cemetery in Johnsville, Maryland.

Praise from Frederick Douglass

At the time of Bishop Payne’s death, Frederick Douglass (left), the former slave who rose to prominence as an American social reformer, wrote in praise of Payne’s character and life’s work. On the first page of his remarks (right) Douglass states, “…no man had ever gone down to the grave deserving more honor for his service to mankind. His was a life without a flaw, and a name without a blemish. His virtue commanded respect, his piety awed even wicked men into reverence. His body was small, but his character was large; his voice was feeble, but his words were weighty and powerful; his attainments were great, but his life was greater.”

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress