William Alexander Payne, (April 9, 1877 – March, 1954) educator, principal, father, and co-founder of California’s first Black colony – Allensworth, was born in Huntington, Cabell County, West Virginia. Payne, the eldest of two children, was born to Robert Francis Payne and Lavinia Barnett. This date of birth is corroborated by Payne’s World War I draft registration card and his place of birth is corroborated by his marriage record. William Payne’s father, Robert, was a farmer. He and his wife were both born in Virginia, according to the 1880 census. In 1884, Payne’s family moved to the hills above Corning, Ohio. Robert Payne took a job in the coal mining industry, and his wife Lavinia became a teacher. With the assistance of his wife and son, William, Robert taught himself to read and write.
Payne attended Denison University in Granville, Ohio. He graduated in 1906 with a Bachelor of Science in Philosophy. He was a member of Denison’s Doane Academy’s Irving Literary Society (a debate club) and the Franklin Literary Society. At commencement he received the Lewis Prize of twenty dollars for best oration. The College annual (The Adytum) refers to Payne as a “silver-tongued orator.” He met his wife Zenobia Jones while at Denison. Jones was from Rendville, Ohio, a very small town in Perry County. In 1905-1906 she attended the Conservatory of Music at Shepardson College, the women’s school that later merged with Denison. Payne and Jones married October 31, 1906 in Perry County, Ohio. Records indicate that Payne taught school and served as assistant principal of Rendville School in Rendville, Ohio. According to some records, he also taught two years at the West Virginia Colored Institute – now West Virginia State University. This indicates that Payne may have taught school while a student at Denison University. However, West Virginia State University library archives are unable to verify Payne’s teaching record as the university does not have records of courses that date during the period of 1900-1910.
Payne, his wife, Zenobia, and their three young daughters, moved to Pasadena, California in 1906. Payne and his wife would subsequently have eight children and they adopted two additional children. Payne and his wife followed Payne’s father who moved to Pasadena a few years earlier. His father, Robert Payne, remarried in 1903 after his first wife, Lavinia died. He remarried Octavia Pollard in Los Angeles County on January 12, 1903. Seeking teaching positions in California, William Payne faced racial opposition. The state of California refused Payne a teaching license due to a lack of prior teaching experience in California. And, despite the schools being integrated in Pasadena, there were no openings for African-American teachers. According to Ms. Margaret Prince Hubert, “For him, a well-educated Black man, Pasadena offered only jobs such as taking care of offices and gardening.” Despite the setback, Payne took a job as a real estate agent.
Between 1906 and 1908 Payne would meet Colonel Allen Allensworth. Inspired by Book T. Washington and encouraged by the success of black towns of the Midwest, Colonel Allen Allensworth and William Payne conceived a plan for a race colony in California. In 1908, they established Solito, however, the town’s name changed to Allensworth in honor of Allen Allensworth. The same year, Payne was appointed the first teacher of the Allensworth School in Tulare County, California. The first classes were taught in the colony’s library. In1912 Allensworth was made into a voting district and school district, and the two-room public school was built. Then, in the summer of 1914, William Payne, who was a friend of the Prince family in Pasadena, offered Margaret Prince the position as primary school teacher at Allensworth. Life at Allensworth was often mentioned in the press, especially as a matter of pride with the Black press, particularly with respect to the importance of education and the respect with which the teachers were held. The Oakland Sunshinewrote in 1913,
Allensworth is blessed with a splendid educational system and has had it from the very beginning. It possesses not a Jim Crow school, with an insufficient amount of money to run it and an indifferent and incompetent crew of teachers, but a regular state school, under the supervision of the State and County Superintendent, with district trustees elected by the people and receiving its share of state and county money with the other schools of the state…With teachers graduates from Eastern universities, holding California High School [teaching] certificates, there should be no reason why the schools should not be the very best.
By 1916, William Payne received a “life diploma” for his teaching service in the Tulare County System. Payne was often referred to as a teachers teacher. His daughter Elizabeth Payne shared, “My father was very anxious to teach school because that was what he had trained to do…the people that lived there [Allensworth] have often remarked that it was more like a private school, because he and Miss Prince [his colleague at the Allensworth school] were well qualified in the music and the arts, and they gave those children opportunities and things that they wouldn’t have known ordinarily.” In an interview former colonist of Allensworth, Henry Singleton, the son of Joshua and Henrietta Singleton who owned and operated the town’s store, shared, “Professor Payne he was the greatest man you ever saw, I just loved him. He meant everything to the children. He was the type of man that he’d get out and play with us, we used to play tag and all sorts of games, and, but when the bell rang to tend to business that was it. And he was no monkey business. I guarantee you, everybody that got out of Allensworth had a grammar school education, the best that you could get any place, otherwise you could not get out.” In a few years they taught at Allensworth, Payne and Prince both attended county institutes and professional meetings with other Tulare Country teachers. Such trips were of interest to the whole community. In April 1915, for example, the Los Angeles New Age reported that “Miss Prince and Mr. Payne, who attended the California Teachers Association which convened in Fresno, made a brief of their observations while away, at a public meeting Sunday.” It is also noted that Prince and Payne went beyond their school duties as they formed a children’s glee club. Inspired by the Fisk Jubilee singers, Prince and Payne took the glee club on tour to surrounding towns, Miss Prince accompanying the children on the piano while Payne led them in song.
However, by 1920, a few years after the death of the town’s principle leader Allen Allensworth in 1914, William Payne left the struggling colony to accept the position of principal of the new segregated school in El Centro, Eastside High School, established for the children of the African-American farm workers who came to the area to work in the cotton fields. According to the Oakland Tribune, he was active in various teacher associations, and fraternal organizations. He was an avid speaker at various events including the annual session of the Negro Grand Lodge of the Knights of Pythias and Order of Calanthians, California District. He was the grand lecturer for the Grand Lodge of Knights of Pythias at El Centro. He was also a master of the Eureka Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Free and Accepted Masons and exalted ruler of the Salton Sea Lodge of Elks. He was also president of BYPU (Baptist Young People Union) of Southern California Western Baptist Convention.
Residents convinced the Board of Trustees to change the name of Eastside High School to honor abolitionist and stateman, Frederick Douglass. Payne would serve as principal of Douglass High School in El Centro for thirty-four years until his death in March 1954. Payne suffered a heart attack at a bus depot in Los Angeles, California while on a business trip.