Born in West Virginia in 1865, William Payne spent his youth in Ohio where his father worked as a coal miner. When Payne graduated from high school, his family sent him to Athens, Ohio to obtain a teaching certificate at the state normal school. Payne had the foresight to seek a bachelor's degree, even though it then exceeded the minimal teaching requirements. In 1898, Payne, one of a small select few of African Americans, was admitted to Denison University in Granville, Ohio. He obtained his degree in Philosophy in 1906. Before receiving his degree from Denison he married his classmate Zenobia B. Jones in 1902, from a prominent Rendsville family.
After retiring from the mines in 1905, his father, Robert Frank Payne, moved the family to California. Payne and his wife followed, moving to Pasadena in 1906. He had been Assistant Principal for seven years at the Rendsville School and professor at the West Virginia Colored Institute for two years. In California, he hoped to be a teacher of teachers. But, eligibility to teach in the Los Angeles School District required prior teaching experience in a California school. Despite the statutes of 1870 which eliminated the state's mandatory separate school system, employment opportunities for African Americans in the California public school system were primarily limited to menial jobs.
Col. Allen Allensworth and William Payne were both educators with a strong sense of social consciousness. They combined their experiences, talents, and educational achievements to establish a Black colony to put their ideas into practice. Col. Allen Allensworth, perhaps the first African American chaplain in the U.S. Army, tapped William Payne to help found California’s first African American community, named for Allensworth.
The location selected for their new colony, to be named Allensworth, was a depot on the main Santa Fe Railroad line connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco. Solito, as it was named in 1908, was a major transfer point for grain and cattle shipments. The soil was fertile, surface water abundant, groundwater tables high, and the cost of land reasonable. The promotion of the town was successful. Enterprising Black men and women — craftsmen, artisans, businessmen, farmers, ranchers, retired military — moved their families to the newly purchased land.
Payne and Allensworth believed that given the opportunity, Black people could live up to their potential, and in the process, destroy the malicious fallacy many whites believed about Black persons, in that, they were intrinsically inferior and therefore incapable of contributing to the American nation. From 1908 to 1916, Allensworth became a thriving community for Black residents. Payne established a school serving as head master, and in 1910 it was California’s first African American school district. The colony of Allensworth was recognized as a city by the state of California, and thus, Payne was able to obtain his teaching license.