History and the people who make it: David Payne

This transcript excerpt illustrates race and gender intersectionality in the classroom through the recollections of Mr. David Payne, who attended the University of Florida and worked as a teacher in the Orange County school district. He was interviewed on December 6, 2014, by Drs. Justin Dunnavant and Ryan Morini [M] for the SPOHP’s African American History Project.

This is the 68th in a series of transcript excerpts from the UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program collection.

Transcript edited by Yiorgo Topalidis. 

M: Could you state when you were born?

Payne: January 28, 1942.

M: And where were you born?

Payne: I’m a Floridian who was born in Kentucky. University of Florida, the tuition my first year was ninety dollars a semester. As many classes as you wanted to take. My older sister, who enrolled in the University of Florida in 1951 as a junior, was like in only the fifth class that accepted women.

I knew no Black students, because there  weren’t any. I read with amusement that the University of Florida claims to have integrated in 1958. There weren’t any Black students here when I got here. And there weren’t until they admitted, I think it was two girls, in [19]62, I believe it was.

I am opposed to segregation, but I wasn’t involved in any kind of activism at that time. Mark, a graduate student in psychology, he said, we want to do something. College Inn is not integrated. We got to do something that will work. 

This is my idea. A boycott is not going to work. Protest signs out front aren’t going to work. The only thing that is going to work with this owner who is adamantly segregationist, we’ve got to get to the cash register in his head. The way we can do that is tell him that all of us opposed to his policy are going to patronize the place on a Saturday. Then if he doesn’t change his policy, he will never see us again. 

I believe it was like a couple of thousand, I don’t have a count, but there were a lot of us lined up University Avenue. A lot. Because I was one of the organizers, I was at the front of the line. Went in. Of course all the serving people were Black. Getting my food. Black lady, probably in her sixties look at me, and there were kind of tears in her eyes. She looks at me and says, “Thank you.” 

That would be the day I became an active activist. [Laughter] We succeeded in getting him to serve Black people at College Inn.

Oh, another thing. I think it was James Brown. My older brother was here for about a year and a half. Went down to a James Brown concert in Ocala. The Ocala Sheriff’s Department didn’t want any white people at this Black performance. And they aggressively hassled any white people, students, who went down there to attend this concert. 

That’s one thing I remember that was really disturbing about the racist attitude.

Many, many of my relatives on my mother’s side are religious fundamentalists. There are some things that you can’t even talk to them about. I love one of my cousins dearly. The things she believes are mind-numbing because she is a Bible literalist. There is no way. 

We can’t sit down and talk about reality, because she is operating from a rigid belief system. I gather that in the middle of this divide, there is a portion in the middle that now embraces gay rights. So on that issue, we are no longer fifty-fifty polarized. We are now at like what? Sixty-five or seventy-thirty on the issue of gay rights. And that has occurred in the last — less than ten years. 

That mindset I was talking about. That kind of culture-wide mindset has changed. And that would change even more as young people begin to replace the old die-hards. 

When I was younger, the thing that set our family apart from the other families was that my parents were not racists. I don’t know why I got that lucky draw. But I got that lucky draw. They weren’t. Including when, I guess I was about seven, and my brother, who is two years older, we were in the house. And my brother referred to Black people. He said, those [expletive]. And mother said, wait a minute. You know that that is an insult, right? Yes. Okay, put the shoe on the other foot. If you were Black and someone said that to you, how would you feel? 

And that is how she got us to understand. [Moreover], there was a Black man that Mother used to buy fresh vegetables from. He would come to the house. He comes through the back door. Mother says you don’t have to go through the back door. He says, oh, yes ma’am, I do. Do you know why? 

Because if a white person had seen him come through the front door of our house, when he left, they would have tracked him down and beat him senseless. 

[In Orlando], Black people patronized our store, which was owned by a couple of German immigrants. They immigrated in the 1930s. Got away from Hitler’s Germany and moved to Ohio and then to Florida. 

But Black people would patronize our store because they could trust the owners. We treated them as human beings. To the extent that we kept these little pencil-written pads. They would come in during the week and buy groceries. He would just write it down. And then on Friday when they got their check from the oranges being picked or whatever, they would come in and pay their bills. Absolutely pay their bills. He never had bad debt on any of those people. 

In one of my jobs, for some reason, I could understand fairly heavy Southern Black dialect. I knew what they were saying. So I was the one they would call. Again, this was a Black lady, I think, in her seventies. She was in line to get some [chewing tobacco]. I was bagging the groceries. She asked did we have such-and-such kind of [chewing tobacco]. I think that is what it was she asked for. She asked me something, and I said no ma’am. And she said, oh, okay. She went out. 

The next person behind her was this white guy, upper [class] blue-collar, driving a new pickup truck. He leaned over into my face and said, don’t you ever say ma’am to a [expletive] again. One of my bosses was standing behind me because I was about to hit him.

Mr. Payne then presents a courageous image of his friend and classmate Clifford Vick that exemplifies intersectional expression of identity. 

Payne: I had a ‘fro. I used to have a ‘fro that was like this [gestures to indicate large size]. And one of the white history teachers, he was Air Force retired. He came up to me one day in the hall at the college and says, when are you going to have your nose flattened and your lips thickened? This was a history teacher at Lake Sumter in 1974 or 1975, he said that. And he was a friend. 

But what happens for me then is that they used to be here. I couldn’t believe that a college instructor in the 1970s would even say that to me. But he did. [Laughter] 

Oh God. The other one, Bride, Colonel Bride who was retired, I think, he was Army colonel. 

One of our students, this Black student, Clifford Vick, was gay and an incredible actor. At that time, I was in charge of the theater program. We started as a club, but by the time I left, we had a full-blown theatre program. But Clifford, one Friday, Clifford comes in in drag with lipstick and plops himself down in Bride’s class. And Bride can’t say a word. All he can do is just suffer and steam. When we found out about it, the enlightened faculty was thinking way to go, Clifford. [Laughter]

Finally, Mr. Payne goes on to describe the political atmosphere and difference in political ideologies between Florida’s Republican and Democratic parties in relation to gay rights. 

Payne: Charley Johns was lieutenant governor. Charley Johns, he was going to clean up the University of Florida of those — I don’t remember the phrase he used. But basically, those pinko commie fags on the University of Florida faculty. 

Luckily, our governors, our Democratic governors, were enlightened. I think Charley Johns — when he was chosen as the lieutenant governor’s running mate — was the thing about where you want the other voting block to pretend. 

But if you look at Democratic governors of Florida starting in the late [19]50s, I can’t say his name now. But he was one of the enlightened southern governors who was very helpful. And then, of course, people like Bob Graham all the way up to Lawton Chiles. 

But the Democratic governors were typically enlightened. Far enlightened for the South. And the legislature was kind of retarded.

This would have been probably [19]62, Skelly and Hoover, Hoover was fullback, Skelly was the tailback on the football team. 

We used to have an alligator in just a little chain-link fence pen by the Century Tower. You would just walk past and say hey to the gator. They never let it get to be a real big one. 

Well, Hoover and Skelly got this bright idea that they wanted to wrestle him. So they broke into the pen. They cut the gator. They hurt the gator. So the university wanted to discipline them, and the state legislature passed one of those, not real bills but whatever they call those things, making alligator wrestling a three-credit class at the University of Florida.

Search for “David Payne” at: ufdc.ufl.edu/oral for the recording and full transcript of this interview.

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