Oral History Project:
Autobiographical Stories of Women From Chandler as Told to CGCC Students in partnership with Chandler Museum's Public History Program
Oral History of Willie Payne  
Written by: Lisa Hartt

Willie Payne Interviewed by Lisa Hartt On October 13, 2004

Willie’s father, Willie Woods, was from Texas. Her mother’s name is Sarah Ellen Woods and her maiden name was Collins. Willie’s mother was born in a small town in southeast Texas. Her father passed away a few years ago, but her mother is still living and recently turned 93. Willie doesn’t know where her parents came from before Texas. She’s been told that her maternal grandmother came from South Carolina. During WWII, her mother worked in a factory making bombs. This was a pretty good job, and she was well paid. So a lot of African-Americans were able to get war jobs, but other than that most jobs were domestic.

Apart from her day job, Willie’s mother was active in various aspects in Chandler. She has worked at the polls, and she has also been involved in the senior center in Chandler. She served as church treasurer for many years, and she was honored by her church with the title of “church mother” for her great service.

When Willie’s family first came to Arizona in 1944, they lived south of Chandler. They came because they were migrant farm workers, and her father had a brother who was contracting with local farmers. He came back to Texas and told her father that life would be better in Arizona because he could earn more money. The family traveled from northeast Texas to Arizona in a covered truck. Willie explains the truck was like covered wagons of the pioneer days. Willie does not remember how many different families were in the truck, but she remembers moving was a big adventure because her family had not traveled much from their little town.

When her family came to Arizona, they only stayed 6 months because she and her siblings were still in school. They were teenagers at the time. Her mother was very insistent that they return to Texas so Willie could finish high school in 1947 because she wanted her to be able to get a good job. They returned to Texas and stayed there until Willie graduated.

Willie’s favorite childhood memory of her growing up was when she spent time at her grandmother’s farm. She feels this was lucky because there was so much to do on a farm. It was just a two room house and a big walnut tree and having fun with her 3 sisters. She and her grandmother would feed the hogs and milk the cows. Willie remembers they would do different chores. Willie's dad planted peanuts and dried them in the sun. After spending time with her grandmother during the summers she had to go back to school.

While growing up Willie’s mother’s emphasis on school led Willie to set goals for herself. Her mother had always wanted to be a teacher but wasn’t able to reach that dream. But teaching was of no interest to Willie. She attended Arizona State University (which before was called Arizona State Teacher’s College). She was interested in business and chose business administration. She registered for business and took secretarial science. In taking the classes for secretarial science, she was required to take one year of accounting. She remembers it was a tough subject but she fell in love with it and switched her major to it, graduating in May 24, 1955 with a BS degree in public accounting.

During high school Willie didn’t participate in any clubs because her town was segregated; she attended the black school and the white students attended the white school. Because the school was so small, there weren’t any clubs. However the students did play sports and have tournaments, like girls’ basketball.

After graduating from high school, Willie left Texas when she was 17. She didn’t notice any restrictions growing up regarding differences of girls and boys. She noticed mostly restrictions based on race and segregation. For example, she was not allowed to use the restrooms in public places. It was a separate life between black and whites. Jobs for African-Americans were especially restrictive.

When Willie had to experience segregation she became active in civil rights protests. She participated in sit ins and boycotts. She remembers being refused service in a downtown Phoenix restaurant and holding a sit in. Her group also protested segregated fast food places in the suburbs. Willie remembers one incident at a Carnation soda ice cream restaurant when officers told the group to leave the premises. Some of the members did and some didn’t. Willie recalls a soldier from the local airforce base refused to leave and was arrested and taken to Durango jail. Willie and her sisters were not arrested but were upset by the incident. She doesn’t remember how her mother responded to their civil rights efforts, but she knows the sisters didn’t tell their mother everything they were involved in at this time.

Willie remembers her early work experiences were also shaped by the times in that she had worked as a domestic in the sales office and was then moved to an accounting position when she earned her degree. However, she was not paid an appropriate amount for her level of responsibility due to both her race and gender. After earning her degree in accounting she worked as an accountant for Ranch Trailer Sales from 1955 to 1972. When she met her husband, he helped her decide to pursue a teaching degree, which she did while balancing her home and work responsibilities. After earning her master’s in Education, she taught for Chandler Unified Schools from 1973 to 1992. Willie’s husband Coy C. Payne shared the domestic and child rearing responsibilities. Mr. Payne served twelve years as a member of the Chandler City Council and two terms as the city’s Mayor from 1990 to 1994. He is Arizona’s first African American to become mayor.

After helping out her husband become mayor, Willie focused on helping out the community. She has had a long record of service to her community, including being a Board Member for Chandler Boys and Girls Club, Chandler Regional Hospital Foundation, and for Chandler Christian Community Center. She served as president of Alpha Upsilon Chapter of Delta Kappa Gamma Society from 1988-1990. Her service record earned her the Chandler Alliance for Character award in 2000. She was also recognized for her eleven years of service as secretary to the Chandler Branch of the NAACP.

After growing up, going to college, and getting married Willie believes strongly in women’s education and leadership skills. She encourages all women to take advantage of leadership opportunities, believing women bring a unique set of skills to positions of power and that they have the chance to make government more service minded in its policies. She believes in this because she wants all women to succeed in life.

Photos courtesy of the family.

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