The Paynes of Piedmont Street: 120 years of Culpeper history

Sawney Payne and his wife, Cora Gatewood Lewis, practiced a legacy of earnest work, educated minds and civil attitudes toward one’s friends and neighbors. They were exemplary role models and left an indelible mark on their children, grandchildren and the community at large.

Payne was born, most likely into slavery, in Louisa County in 1854 to Joseph and Grace Payne. The 1870 Census record lists him as not being able to read or write and working as a farm laborer. However, Payne was a man on the move.

In the 15 years since the end of the American Civil War and the passing of the 13th Amendment abolishing the institution of slavery, Payne’s status had change dramatically. The 1880 Census record reported the 26-year-old as working for the railroad and having acquired the ability to read and write.

 Armed with his freedom and aspirations for a better life, Payne left the place of his birth heading north, presumably in search of improved employment and maybe, just maybe, a suitable bride.

Was his stop in Culpeper County purposeful or planned only as an interim respite on the journey north? His original intentions may never be known, but history tells us that Culpeper became his home; perhaps influenced by finding that one special woman. Sawney Payne, at age 31, and Cora Gatewood Lewis, a 20-year-old from Culpeper, married in 1885.

The young couple began raising a family that would see seven of their nine children live to become contributing citizens to their respective communities, with the majority remaining in Culpeper.

During the late 1800s, sustainable work for a young black man in Culpeper County was a scarcity. Payne would often be away from home for weeks finding employment in areas to the north. His great-granddaughter, Angela Chapman, remembers her grandmother telling how her father hated being away from the family and putting the burden of child rearing solely on the shoulders of Cora.

After 10 years of this kind of routine, Payne had saved a small amount of money and he and Cora made a life-changing decision: Payne would open his own business as a licensed barber and the couple would buy a house within walking distance of the shop.

Black ownership of real property within only a few decades after the end of slavery was not the norm; however, in 1895, with the support of the Rev. Willis Madden and the church family at Antioch Baptist Church, the Paynes went into debt for $171 and purchased the house at 121 West Slaughter Street.

According to census records from 1900 to 1940,  the Paynes would be the sole African American family on the block and according to their descendants, were well respected in the neighborhood.

“The neighborhood children would play in our backyard and grandmother’s only rule was that everyone got along. If they did not, she sent them home,” remembered Angela Chapman.

Court records indicate that the Paynes had paid off their debt by 1900 and with a house full of children plus an in-law or two it was well past time to build an addition. A substantial L-wing addition was constructed circa 1910 that included an eat-in kitchen, parlor, foyer with a new staircase and two bedrooms on the second floor, bringing the total number of bedrooms to four.

The original first floor living space was remodeled and converted into a formal dining room and the original steps were believed to have been removed during this renovation.

The well-landscaped yard, enclosed with a white picket fence, included a small barn for livestock and hay storage, fruit trees and a vegetable garden. The house, when purchased in 1895, was wrapped on two sides with a covered porch that enjoyed the Cora Payne’s green thumb until her death in 1951.

Annie Payne, born in 1894, graduated from Virginia State College for Negroes in 1913 (now known as Virginia State University) and founded in 1882 as the first fully state-supported four-year institution of higher learning for black Americans in the United States. Annie’s and sister Lillian’s graduations were a rare accomplishment among all women of that era. Annie would return to Culpeper, marry William Lovell and teach in the segregated public school system until the 1950s.

The oldest son, Gordon Payne, would eventually leave the family shop on Main Street and open his own barber business in a small cinder block building constructed for that purpose on a lot sandwiched between Antioch Baptist Church and his two story home on West Street.

Gordon Payne was the father of two men well known to the Culpeper community: Jimmy Payne, who owned and operated Culpeper’s shoe repair shop alongside of his wife who was a chemist with a degree from Howard University and a master at dyeing shoes any color one could possibly imagine, and “Ace” Payne, who owned a barber shop at the south end of Main and was integrally involved with the Culpeper community always seeking to improve the quality of life.

A relationship with the Culpeper community began for the Paynes at 121 West Piedmont Street in 1895 and continued for 120 years. The Culpeper community  has benefitted from the family’s dedication to education, civic mindfulness and  strong work ethic.

As the investigation of the pre-Payne era of the house at 121 W. Piedmont continues, please watch for upcoming articles in the Culpeper Star-Exponent and online at www.starexponent.com .

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