By Damon L. Fordham
Most non-historians’ knowledge of blacks during the 1800s tends to be an incomplete understanding of slavery as a time of complete illiteracy and ignorance for African Americans. It may surprise most people today to learn that there were many brilliant African Americans during the slavery era that are not discussed in most classrooms today. One of them, Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne, was a Charleston native who taught slaves and free blacks in his city in the 1830s and was the first African American to serve as president of a college.
Daniel Payne was born in Charleston on February 24, 1811 to London and Martha Payne, who were both free blacks of racially mixed origin. His parents died young, but Daniel learned to love reading and knowledge at an early age. He was taught by a free black Charlestonian from Berkeley County named Thomas Bonneau, but Payne learned more through reading on his own. He taught himself to master subjects as Greek, Latin, mathematics, science, and classical literature. He was especially proud of learning Hebrew and Ancient Greek on his own so that he could read the Bible in its original written languages. When Payne joined the Methodist church at age 15, he said that he the voice of God telling him, “I have set thee apart to educate thyself in order that thou mayest be an educator to thy people.” Payne would spend the rest of his life obeying this order. He described his early efforts in his autobiography Reflections on Seventy Years.
“My first school was opened in 1829 in a house on Tradd Street occupied by one Cæsar Wright. It consisted of his three children, for each of whom he paid me fifty cents a month. I also taught three adult slaves at night, at the same price, thus making my monthly income from teaching only three dollars. This was not sufficient to feed me, but a slave-woman, Mrs. Eleanor Parker, supplied many of my wants. I was happy in my humble employment, but at the end of the year I was so discouraged at the financial result, and by the remarks expressed by envious persons, that I decided to seek some other employment which would yield better pay.”
However, Payne had an encounter with a slaveholder after considering this idea. While the two men were conversing, the slaveholder asked, “Do you know the difference between the master and his slave?” Payne was not sure. The slaveholder replied, “Nothing but superior knowledge!” This reminded Payne of his duty to educate his people regardless of the circumstances, and he reopened his school. The second school expanded to a larger building that contained 60 pupils among enslaved as well as free black children and adults.
By 1835, the school was in jeopardy. In the 1820s and 30s, literate fee and enslaved rebels such as Nat Turner, David Walker, and Charleston’s Denmark Vesey, had used Biblical verses and newspaper stories about the slave rebellion that freed Haiti to encourage their enslaved brethren to revolt against slavery. Since these rebels used written materials to encourage rebellions, the South Carolina legislature passed a law prohibiting the teaching of African Americans free or enslaved to read or write. Payne was forced to close his school, but he moved to Philadelphia where he rose in the ranks of the newly-established African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, which was also outlawed in Charleston after Denmark Vesey’s attempted rebellion.
Payne eventually became a Bishop in the AME Church. He never forgot his conversation with the slaveholder and continued to promote education as a means of freedom for his people. He was one of the founders and the first president of Wilberforce University in Ohio, which was the first African American college founded mostly by African Americans themselves. He would also visit jails in many cities to minister to black prisoners.
While Payne believed that education and religion were the best means of freedom for African Americans, he understood that other means were often necessary. In 1882, while on a train to a church conference in Jacksonville, Florida, the conductor attempted to force Bishop Payne into a railroad car reserved for “colored passengers.” Payne replied, “I will not dishonor my manhood by going into that car. You stop your train and put me off.” The conductor did just that, and Payne walked toward Jacksonville until some black men gave him a ride about a mile outside of the city. Protests were made to the authorities, and a district attorney refused to take Payne’s case. The editor and district attorney died of natural causes shortly afterward, and Payne was given free tickets for future use on the train. This all took place 73 years before Rosa Parks made her more famous stand.
Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne died in 1893 at the age of 82 shortly after publishing a history of the AME Church. While his story is scarcely known outside of scholars of the AME Church, it is hoped that this article will cause others to be inspired by his early efforts to educate his people.