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Learn the Story of Payne ES

Marlee Young is the fifth generation of her family to attend Payne Elementary School. The fifth-grader discovered that since the 1930s, a line of women spanning each of the previous four generations –from her great-great grandmother to her mother –has attended the 124-year old school at the corner of 15th and C Streets SE.

“Learning about Payne’s history taught me a lot about my own history, and the ties my family had to the community,” she said. “Over the years, the neighborhood has changed tremendously and some historic identities may be lost. However, the neighborhood school often remains.”

Young was part of a team of eight students in grades three through six that were part of the Story of Our Schools Club last year. The project was supported by The Story of Our Schools, a non-for-profit dedicated to partnerships with DC Schools that teach kids how to research and tell the story of the history of their school and the surrounding neighborhood.

The students did research, conducted interviews, and received more than 300 photographs from neighbors for the permanent exhibit installed in the foyer of the school. Young made her remarks at when the exhibit officially opened at an evening event held Feb. 6.

The School Community

Story of Our Schools Executive Director Jen Harris said that the kids are the drivers for the exhibits, previously opened at Marie Reed ES in Adams Morgan and Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan and currently underway at Oyster-Adams and Eliot-Hine. She said that children are uniquely equipped to tell the stories of their neighborhoods and the people in them, because they are naturally curious and welcoming.

“The history isn’t all written. You have to venture out and ask questions, and the kids do it beautifully,” she said. “Everyone wants to talk to kids.”

The display at Payne consists of three parts. One part represents the school community, another the school history and a third telling the story of Daniel Payne, including a timeline of his life. The exhibit is united by quotations from a speech made by Frederick Douglass at the unveiling of a memorial to Payne in 1894.

One wall, tiled with photos of students at work on the project and in the community, features a digital slideshow of photos donated by community members. The digital element, photos hosted on an LCD screen, allows the project to be constantly changing and evolving along with the school, said Harris.

A particularly moving section displays images of students and neighbors over time, including students past and present from multiple generations and demographics. In one space, there is a mirror placed so the viewer can see themselves as part of the school community.

“What I really wanted the community and students to see,” said Harris, “is that all these people are part of the school neighborhood. All these identities and generations are represented right here, and you are a part of it.”

Harris said that Story of Our Schools provided equipment, such as a high-resolution microphone and laptop, as well as a curriculum to guide teachers, but really let the students guide the project with their questions.

Who Daniel Payne Was, What Daniel Payne Is

In addition to learning about the school’s past students and its role in the community, the project also focused on the school’s namesake, Harris said, allowing students to consider the person behind the name of their school.

During the opening event, student Niamyah Jackson described how the school was named for Daniel Alexander Payne. Born in early 1800, Payne founded his first school using his own money, and Jackson said he couldn’t imagine how Payne must have felt when he was forced to close the school shortly thereafter. “But Mr. Payne didn’t stop there. He went on to help found Wilberforce University, the first university to be owned and operated by black people,” Jackson said.

The school that now bears Payne’s name was built for black students in 1896, three years after his death. In 1951 and 1953, parents went on strike to draw attention to crowding and inequity at the school, contributing to the desegregation of District schools in 1954.

The students also learned that the original Payne ES building was destroyed in a fire in the 1980s. In an interview with student researchers, former student and current parent Sam Bardley described coming back from a field trip to see the flames. Students also spoke with firefighters called to the blaze.

Teacher Juanita Stokes, who guided the project together with Ms. Monich Brown, said that the students learned to be researchers, writers, designers and explorers who delved deep into the history and the era that Daniel Payne lived in, as well as the history –and mystery –of the school.

Some secrets remain unknown. When the students explored the school building, she said, they found a locked filing cabinet and safe, which they tried to open. While Stokes said they now think the cabinet is empty, the students never did figure out the safe combination, and no-one knows what is inside.

A Place to Be Rooted

Payne Principal Stephanie Byrd said that schools have a huge place in the community, not only for children to learn and grow, but for people to form connections and to come back to remember who they were. “It’s kind of a place where community becomes rooted,” she said. “Daniel Payne has been in this community for more than 100 years.”

“It’s an important project, it’s an important part of this community to know who Daniel Payne was and what Daniel Payne [now] is.”

Student Niamyah Jackson agreed. “I really enjoyed my time with this project,” he said during his remarks, “and I’m happy to be at the exhibit opening so that students once again, today and tomorrow, will know more about the story of our school, the story of Daniel Payne and Payne Elementary school.”

Learn more about Daniel A. Payne Elementary by visiting paynedc.org. Learn more about the Story of Our Schools and support their work by visiting storyofourschools.org.

In an earlier version of this story, Marlee Young’s last name was incorrectly given as ‘Jackson’ in the first line. The Hill Rag regrets the error. 

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