This upcoming Tuesday, February 24, is the birthday of a remarkable figure in Ohio’s history. It was on this date in 1811 that Daniel A. Payne was born in Charleston, South Carolina, the son of free parents of mixed black, white, and American Indian ancestry. Payne would go on to become the first African American college president in 1863 when he was named president of Wilberforce University near Xenia, Ohio.
In his early 20s, Payne moved north to enroll in a seminary. He was licensed to preach in 1837 and ordained in 1839. Although affiliated with several denominations, Payne eventually settled on the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which ordained him as bishop in 1852. In his ministry, Payne focused on education as the key to empowerment; fittingly, in 1863 he was able to raise enough money to purchase Wilberforce University on behalf of the A.M.E. Church. Between 1863 and 1876, Payne provided leadership as president of the university, which became a respected leader in educating black students, and the first to be owned and run by African Americans. During his tenure as president, enrollment at Wilberforce increased more than ten-fold, from just 12 students at the start to 150 by 1876.
In addition to his important legacy at Wilberforce and within the A.M.E. Church, Payne is remembered as a staunch abolitionist and as a skillful author. He served as the historiographer for the A.M.E. Church, penning the comprehensive History of the American Methodist Episcopal Church in 1891. A much more in-depth exploration of his fascinating life is also available in his 1888 memoir, Recollections of Seventy Years. In it, he reflects on his childhood in the antebellum South, his time at Wilberforce, and his numerous trips abroad. He ends with a wish that his words will inspire readers to start “on a career of study and usefulness… that will bring blessings to mankind.”
We invite you to take some time this weekend to learn more about this important figure in Ohio and African American history, as we continue to celebrate Black History Month through Ohio Memory!