Daniel Payne was a rarity, a black man born free in Charleston, South Carolina in 1811. Of African, European, and Native American descent, Daniel was afforded both a classical education through the Minors’ Moralist Society and a spiritual upbringing through the Methodist Church. These experiences would shape Payne into a man of tremendous influence in the educational history of black America.
Madness and the Methodist
Payne found his passion for education early in life, so much so that he dedicated himself to affording others these same unique opportunities. In 1829, when Payne was a mere 18 years of age, he opened his first school. The institution was, however, short-lived. A man named Nat Turner led the bloodiest slave rebellion in American history in 1831. In its immediate aftermath, many southern states, South Carolina among them, enacted harsh legislation severely restricting black rights.
Among the new restrictions, literacy instruction was outlawed in 1835, a circumstance which forced Payne to close his school and journey to Philadelphia to further his education. It was here that he followed in the footsteps of the late Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) and a man who argued that the only way forward from slavery and racism was for black Americans to establish a strong, visible and independent religious denomination. It was thus that Payne established a seminary for instruction and education in the AME ministry. In 1852, Payne was consecrated as bishop of the AME denomination, a post which he would serve for the rest of his days.
House of Payne
Payne’s passion for knowledge was never far from his religious conviction. He considered literacy critical to the work of the ministry and, moreover, saw education as the only true path for black liberation. These values informed Payne as he served on the founding board of directors for Wilberforce University in 1856. The historically black Ohio college was the first to be established with direct involvement from African Americans.
In another first, Payne would be selected as the institution’s president in 1863 and as the nation’s first ever African American college president. That distinction is made all the more remarkable by the fact that it occurred in the midst of the Civil War, as two sides of a nation lined up to contest the institution of slavery. Through numerous hardships, including the torching of several building by a southern sympathizer, Wilberforce survived the war due in no small part to Payne’s tireless fundraising and impassioned leadership.
A Lasting Impact
Payne served as the school’s president until 1877 and devoted the entirety of his later years to spreading AME congregations throughout Reconstruction Era south. In just over a decade following the war, Payne had grown the southern denomination of his church to a staggering 250,000 adherents. As the church grew, Payne imbued countless, newly liberated black communities with his own strong commitments to faith and knowledge.
Though Payne passed on in 1893, Wilberforce University fulfilled his vision, attracting scholastic giants like W.E.B. Du Bois and William S. Scarborough to its faculty and becoming a center of black cultural and intellectual life in the region.
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