Legacy of discrimination still evident today

April 9, 2011 

While the scores of resolutions lawmakers pass each session commemorating events, lives well-lived and the success of people and sports teams are meaningful to friends, family and those close to the honored moment or persons, they largely go unnoticed.

But the resolution the S.C. House of Representatives passed celebrating the life and legacy of Daniel Alexander Payne, a Charleston native, AME Church bishop, educator, founder of Wilberforce University and college president, screams for wider recognition.

As accomplished as Bishop Payne was -- he was one of the most influential bishops in the history of the AME Church -- his story is as sobering as it is fascinating from a South Carolina perspective. This passionate educator, who was born 200 years ago this year, started a school in Charleston for black people, but had to shut it down because his native state's leaders outlawed teaching people of color.

At a time when this state is struggling to remedy the achievement gap between blacks and whites, high dropout rates for African-Americans and the dearth of black male students in its top three public colleges, it is important to have this historic reminder. We must be reminded of how hard South Carolina fought to keep many of its people uneducated and disenfranchised if we are to understand why it's so critical to go above and beyond today to ensure that all of this state's children have an opportunity to get a high quality education. If we fail to do that, we hold back our entire state.

Payne's story reminds us that black people wanted to learn but were systematically stripped of the opportunity. Payne, began school at age 8, but dropped out after several years because of the poor quality of schools for black students. But he didn't stop learning. Instead, he taught himself mathematics, physical science and classical languages. At age 18, he opened a school in Charleston and began teaching blacks to read and write.

The school was moved twice; the final location was the backyard of a home on Anson Street, where it stayed until April 1835.

Payne was forced to close the school that year when the legislature made it a crime to teach slaves and free people of color.

Whites who violated the law faced fines and possible prison time; black people -- slave or free -- faced those punishments and the lash.

Payne was crushed. "The immediate effects of this act on my mind were terrible. Sleep fled from my eyes, and therefore I dreaded the night. When it came I prayed for sleep, but no answer from nature was given," he wrote.

"Sometimes it seemed as though some wild beast had plunged his fangs into my heart, and was squeezing out its life-blood. Then I began to question the existence of God ... . But then there came into my mind those solemn words: 'With God one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day. Trust in him, and he will bring slavery and all its outrages to an end.' These words from the spirit world acted on my troubled soul like water on a burning fire, and my aching heart was soothed and relieved from its burden of woes."

He would later have a dream that he said led him away from Charleston and the South.

"The effect of this dream was to settle my mind on the determination to seek a field of usefulness as a teacher in the free North, where I believed I could teach without let or hindrance," he wrote.

Payne would help found and become the first black president of an institution of higher education -- Wilberforce University, the first university for African-Americans in the country. The Wilberforce College Board of Trustees later established Payne Theological Seminary, and Payne served as its first president.

South Carolina lost one of its bright educational minds, and the vestiges of that 1835 law and other mean-spirited, willful acts against black people linger today. While many schools would spring up over the decades and black people would begin to learn, generations labored through a separate and unequal public school system. Where you live dictates what kind and quality of education your child receives.

The House resolution about Payne might have gone largely unnoticed, but the legacy of his times endures today.

Warrem Bolton writes for The (Columbia) State.

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