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Interview with Leo J. Payne

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Payne, Leo J. ; O'Neil, Dan


Leo Payne speaks of his early childhood growing up in Binghamton and later working as a bookkeeper and stenographer. He owned his own trucking company in Binghamton in the early twentieth century. He discusses his inter-racial marriage and the death of his first wife in childbirth because there were no hospitals in Sidney, N.Y. where his wife had gone into labor. He was active in a Masonic Lodge and in his church, Trinity M.F. Zion, the latter for which he assisted in securing a new church building. He also discusses discrimination and discriminatory business practices in the area at the time, including an anecdote about Duke Ellington being refused a place to stay when he came to Binghamton to perform. He speaks about his experiences with the Ku Klux Klan and the Mafia in Binghamton. At the time of the interview, Payne was 89 years old and still running his trucking business.




This audio file and digital image may only be used for educational purposes. Please cite as: Broome County Oral History Project, Special Collections, Binghamton University Libraries, Binghamton University, State University of New York. For usage beyond fair use please contact the Binghamton University Libraries Special Collections for more information.

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Broome County Oral History Project


33:47 minutes; 7:19 minutes


Interview with: Leo J. Payne
Interviewer: Dan O’Neil
Date of Interview: 10 February 1978

Dan: Mr. Payne, will you please tell me about your life and working experiences in the community starting with the early days, including the place of birth, education and family life with emphasis on your working experiences?
Mr. Payne: Well I, ah, of course was born in Towanda, Pennsylvania, ah, the family moved to Binghamton when I was two years old and ah, we, ah, my father went to work for Cyrus Clapp on ah Chenango Street–19 Chenango Street as a coachman and ah when I was five years old he ah went into trucking business for himself with a cart wagon and ah two horses and he moved to 25 Sherman Place. I was ah just as a small boy when ah he took me up to watch the ah ah the Courthouse burn down. We ah I saw that, that was quite a place and was up on quite a hill at that time. Now let’s see ah I ah I went to ah Carroll Street School until I was around 8 years old and then to ah Washington Street School–now the ah police station, where the Police Station used to be and ah when I was 12 years old, I went to to ah Central High School (Clock Chimes) and ah got my education there. After that I went to Riley's Business School that was oh can't think the name of that little street and ah from there I ah got a position as a Bookkeeper and Stenographer with ah Harry Doherty, who runs one of the first garages in Binghamton selling the Pierce Arrows and the White Steamers–not the Pierce Arrows, the Cadillacs and the Stanley Steamers. Ah business got bad and ah I was ah laid off. I went back to help my father then shovel coal–he used to have a contract with them and the Binghamton Cold Storage company. After about six months, a Professor Riley got me a position as a Bookkeeper and Stenographer at, ah, G.A. Glark Company in Sidney, N.Y. I stayed there until my–I worked too much inside–my Doctor told me I’d have to get outdoors or get a coffin–so the only thing I know what to do, I sold my house in Sidney and came down and bought out ah Rich ah Millard–he had that ah ah trucking business that people put him in business but he didn't want no business and so finally they ah put it up for sale but that was at the same time–so I came down and looked. He had two trucks & ah made a payment on them–I bought them. I went back to ah Sydney to get the ah ah additional loan so I could pay for it as my boss, my boss G.A. Clark's brother was President of the Sidney National Bank. Well I ah got along very good. After a couple years ah Mr. Clark came down, wanted to buy my trucks and ah have me come back to work and then my wife–I got married in between and ah at ah Cynthia Gifford, whose father was President of the ah People’s Trust Company in Sidney–he disowned her for you know ah marrying a colored man and ah we got, we got along very good. We came down to Binghamton and got married at the Centenary Church. I can remember at that time my people were living at 173 Henry Street in Binghamton. Had a, well, I got along very good by industrious working–I done a lot of work myself and I went around and worked up a very good business and finally connected with ah the Kroehler Manufacturing Company in 1930 and ah drawing furniture for them to different towns and ah I worked for them until around 1970, I think, in 1968 or 70 when I an gave ah a tractor and trailer one each to my two brothers, who were working for me and ah told them that they could go for their own as a gypsy as they had no rights–Interstate rights see, which I did have and I continued in a small way ah with a couple of moving vans doing moving jobs around ah near Binghamton as possible and in Binghamton and still doing it. Now that’s about all I ah had two children–one of my sons, Clark Payne, and we named him after my ah earlier boss in Sidney and ah he died here a short time ago and my daughter Doris is still with me and ah looking after me. I've had several heart attacks and ah two years ago I had two heart plants and ah, what you call it, pacemakers.
Dan: Pacemakers.
Mr. Payne: Put in and at the present time I'm feeling quite well.
Dan: That’s fine.
Mr. Payne: Now that’s about–
Dan: How old are you, Mr. Payne?
Mr. Payne: I’m 80–89 years old that 1st of February.
Dan: Great, great, great. Now what year did you buy the Richard Millard Company?
Mr. Payne: 1917.
Dan: 1917 and when did you get married–what year?
Mr. Payne: Oh dear, let’s see, 1913.
Dan: 1913
Mr. Payne: Well I was married twice.
Dan: I see.
Mr. Payne: I was married in 1910 the first time. My wife died of childbirth.
Dan: Oh.
Mr. Payne: And they had ah close the operation.
Dan: I see, did the baby die too?
Mr. Payne: They died before.
Dan: Oh.
Mr. Payne: So they had to force the operation but they didn’t have no hospitals there in Sidney and they just ah a couple of Doctors and ah they ah charged an operation with car batteries like–yeah they were car batteries some way but ah she only lived two days afterwards.
Dan: I see, I see.
Mr. Payne: But the second time, I was married in 1913.
Dan: In 1913 the second time and when did your wife die or is she still
Mr. Payne (to daughter Doris): Oh when did your Mother die, do you remember?
Doris: December 7th ‘69.
Dan: December 7th ‘69. Now you mentioned that you were kind of disowned by the family because ah of–
Mr. Payne: Of racial–
Dan: Of racial discrimination there, yeah. Now did you encounter any racial discrimination here, Mr Payne?
Mr. Payne: I, I never ah ah had ah any ah racial ah ah trouble here in Binghamton at all–never.
Dan: Never.
Mr. Payne: I went any place anybody else could go and was received.
Dan: Um hum.
Mr. Payne: ‘Cause I always tried to live a life that people would respect me. I joined the Masonic Lodge as soon as I could join and I ah was very ah enthusiastic about Masonic work and I finally ah ah rose up until now I am a Past Grand Master of the State Prince Hall affiliation of Masonic work.
Dan: What church do you belong to?
Mr. Payne: Trinity M.E. Zion.
Dan: OK, do you belong to any clubs there at all?
Mr. Payne: What’s that?
Dan: Do you belong to any clubs there at all?
Mr. Payne: Clubs, no I never joined anything else because I’ve always been very active in my Church work. For 15 years I was Chairman of the ah ah church Board. I ah put the church and an apartment next to it in the ah church’s ah lap without investing a cent. Free and clear–I had to use my head a little. Ah the ah State took over the parsonage for forty ah ah they only offered $450.00 for it.
Dan: Is that right?
Mr. Payne: Thats when they started clearing out for the playgrounds on ah Sherman Place.
Dan: Uh huh.
Mr. Payne: So, being very active in church work, they ah the ah church association here ah heard that I was looking for a parsonage–so the Chairman of the Church Board here called me up said, "Mr. Payne, I hear you're looking for a parsonage.” I said, "Yes, but I can't get ahit [sic] for what the ah anything for what they want to allow me for ah my old parsonage because anything I looked at was from 10 to 12 thousand, 12 hundred dollars.” So I says, he says, "Well how would you like to buy a church and a parsonage?” I says, “I’ll tell you, Reverend, I haven’t got five cents to invest. We are $1100.00 in the hole.” He says, "Well, could you have a couple of your board members meet me at the church on the corner of Lydia & Oak at 2 o'clock?" Yes sir, so I got ‘em, cause I was very active then and ah I looked the place over and ah he said, "Now ah IBM ah not IBM, GAF wants to ah buy the corner and ah put ah ah watering place there and ah Kradjian wants it to tear down and put ah ah development there, he said, but we rather have it for a church–Now it'll have to go up for a bid–could you make me a bid?" I said, "Well listen Rev, the best I could do would he $20,000.00.” He says, "Well I’ll take your bid in–how could you pay for it?” I said, "Cash." He says "What? I thought you was broke.” I am so I says, "I'll take care of it. I'll get in touch with you just within the next couple days.” So I called my head Minister up and I told him I says "You go see the Priest at ah St. Mary’s on ah Hawley and Fayette Street and tell him ‘cause he had asked me once before for a price on my church which was in very bad shape and he offered me $10,000.00 for it." Well I said 10 then 4, all right. I called Mrs. Titchner up–she was the development ah Superintendent here at that time–and I says, “Mrs. Titchner, I've got a proposition–it’s only good for a week. I've got to have at least $8,000.00 for the parsonage." [She says,] “Oh, Mr. Payne, I could never get that much.” I said, "Well I'm going to tell you what I've got in mind. I said I have ah offered the Church to the ah St. Mary’s ah Catholic Church for $15,000.00. I've given them a week’s, ah, option, I said, otherwise I'm gonna rebuild it" and ah (Clock chimes) she said, "Well I'm going to tell you what I'll do, Mr. Payne. I, I, I appreciate what you're doing, I'll call the State and see what I can do for you. I'll tell them the situation.” About three days afterwards, she called back and said, "OK, you can have the $8,000.00"--so I got that $8,000.00. The, the Priest saw my Minister and told him he’d take it, so I got $15,000.00–so I got $23,000.00, see, without a dime invested no place and ah I don't know, it was transacted through ah the First City National Bank and I met there with them. Ah the President of the Bank at that time said, "I don't know I ah Mr. Payne, you' re marvelous, I ah wish we had a Chairman that could work it like you worked it." (Laughter) So I took the $20,000.00 ah ah to them to for the church, I mean to pay for it–I had $3000.00 left, I paid the $1100.00 off that ah we owed and ah cause the ceiling was falling down and ah I had that fixed and that’s what I owed and then I took a couple thousand dollars they ah they ah–the furnace was bad so I put a new furnace in or used one that was in very good shape I bought from Fred Kennedy–at that time he was in the ah ah used building ah business and ah used the rest of the money for decorating the inside and what we could on the outside painting he says and they didn't cost them a dime. (Laughter)
Dan: Ah, now what you said, you went to Central High School–did you graduate from ah Central High School?
Mr. Payne: I ah ah quit ah ah in the ah eleventh grade to go to ah cause my family was in a little bad shape to go to they had enough money to send me to Riley's Business College and so I, I didn't quite finish ah for that and went to Riley's Business College. Riley's son and I had been friends ever since we was small kids and ah he told me I've ah had enough education for what he can give me so I don't need no more and he'll see that I get a break cause there was a lot of prejudices you know at that time in Binghamton.
Dan: Lot of what, lot of what?
Mr. Payne: Prejudices.
Dan: Oh, prejudices.
Mr. Payne: Yeah, I can remember that ah Ralph Hackett was in charge of ah the ah G.F. Pavilion and ah he ah I don't know, I wanted to raise money for the Lodge, see if we could buy a place eventually, so I started ah ah giving some dances around and I went down to see Ralph cause we had been friends ah otherwise and ah I asked him if we could rent it. He says, "Oh, this is strictly ah ah company ah company place of amusement and it’s not for rent to anybody.” I says, “Well you tell ah George F. that I want it at least twice a year–once in the spring and once in the fall for a Masonic dance and I want to improve the colored people in Binghamton as much as possible," and ah so anyhow ah he said to tell Ralph to let me have it once or twice a year– once in the spring and once in the fall, so Ralph and I got to be quite friends. So they was ah bringing name bands here for their dances and ah so ah–oh, I'm trying to think of his name now, oh he was a good friend of mine. He just died. Oh colored ah band Leader–tops–what was his name? Oh dear, he was a composer as well as ah ah–
Dan: Wouldn’t be Garner there, would it?
Mr. Payne: What?
Dan: Would it be Garner, Garner?
Mr. Payne: No–Duke Ellington.
Dan: Duke Ellington.
Mr. Payne: Yeah, he came here. They wouldn't let him, they had 20 people. They wouldn't let his ah ah his group stay overnight in any hotel here.
Dan: What year was this?
Mr. Payne: Oh God, I don't quite remember the year, but anyhow, let’s see, Ralph called me up and wanted to know if I could find places for them to stay overnight among my friends because you know I you know because I was in top shape and had very good friends. I finally got 'em enough to room so I went back down–he come here on a bus with his band and ah I told him what I had done. He says, "Well listen, ah ah Mr. Payne, I'm I’m very thankful for what vou've done, but these white people in Binghamton do so and so, which I can't ever repeat.”
Dan: In other words, in other words, there was discrimination.
Mr. Payne: "From now on I'm going to play this engagement and I'm leaving afterwards and they'll get on their knees to get me back here again and they'll do it too.” And they really did and finally ah after many years they got him to come back.
Dan: You know the Ku Klux Klan was very active at one time here in this city, wasn't it?
Mr. Payne: All right - I had that, at that time when the Ku Klux Klan was active here in Binghamton, had a Convention here, I can't remember the date. It was in the 20s. Ah I was, ah, backed on Centenary Street with my truck, loading some furniture, and it blocked off the street and ah a guy come by with a pickup truck and wanted me to move my truck out of the street londside. Well I told him I couldn't do it because we was getting ready to put a piano in and ah he'd have to wait. Well I ain't waiting but he did ah went up on the sidewalk on the other side and he clipped the front of ah my truck. So I jumped out there boy and I let him have one. So he says, "We got an organization going to take care of you." I says, “Oh you have, well I've got an organization that says you can’t." I was very proud of proud to belong–I didn't belong of of to be a friend of the Mafia, that was here. That was ah at that time I had ah a associate business of welding on Collier Street, which was known at that time as Automobile Row and ah this one particular friend there was a liquor ah ah ah bar room on each side of where I was ah ah I had my welding shop and ah I this is where I met this one of the heads of the Mafia, who became a very good friend of mine. I told him about what this guy said ‘cause I know they was quite strong from talking with them before because there was a lot of Italian people down around that way, see. He says, ''All right, they're having ah ah big time here next year, Ku Klux Klan, I'm going with you and we're going up and see that parade and I want to tell them something anyhow." So we went up and stood on the corner of Chenango and Henry. All right, this ah parade come down and this big shot stopped right in front of us–so right away quick my pal says, "Listen you so and so, this is my pal Leo Payne, I heard that you was ah looking for him and here he is. If you touch one hair of his head, I blow your head off." And then he told me if I, I wanted him at that time, anybody put out of the way, for $125 .00 I could have it done and nobody would be the wiser who done it.
Dan: Now you ah did you encounter any other prejudices as far as the white people in the community?
Mr. Payne: Never had any trouble at all.
Dan: No, no trouble at all. You're an old established family here, Mr. Payne.
Mr. Payne: What?
Dan: You’re an old established family here–respected family..
Mr. Payne: Yes.
Dan: You are. Now you said your dad was in business in the piano moving business before you?
Mr. Payne: He was in the moving business.
Dan: Moving business.
Mr. Payne: Moved anything, cleaning out cellars and moving.
Dan: How long was he in business?
Mr. Payne: Oh dear, uh uh until he died.
Dan: Until he died–what year would that be approximately?
Mr. Payne: I think, let’s see, he's been dead about 16 years.
Dan: lb years.
Mr. Payne: Yeah, and my mother died right afterwards–the next year.
Dan: About 1961 then, huh?
Mr. Payne: Yes.
Dan: Uh huh, 62.
Mr. Payne: They're buried in ah Chenango Valley Cemetery. So when my wife
died, I bought five lots up there for my immediate family which I still own. Put a stone up there for both my wife and myself.
Dan: Now you worked from 1917, when you started in business, right up until 67–did you say 1967 - 68?
Mr. Payne: I quit work ah about ah oh about 4 years ago, myself that is, doing any labor.
Dan: Oh you did. Did you that soon, huh? Just 4 years ago.
Mr. Payne: Yes that’s all.
Dan: Oh.
Mr. Payne: I was good right up ‘til then.
Dan: Who's carrying on your business now, Mr. Payne?
Mr. Payne: Well I am.
Dan: Oh, are you?
Mr. Payne: Sure, I just answer the phone or have my daughter, if I can't hear–she answers for me.
Dan: Uh huh.
Mr. Payne: And I have a couple friends of mine that worked with me when I was ah ah driving myself years and years ago.
Dan: Now what was the pay scale when you started out down in back in 1917. How much were you making - how much were you making yourself back in 1917?
Mr. Payne: Ah, I was getting top pay $20.00.
nan: $20.00 a week?
Mr. Payne: Yeah.
Dan: That’s out of your business?
Mr. Payne: No, I ah ah that’s what I got up in Sidney.
Dan : Oh, in Sidney.
Mr. Payne: At the end.
Dan: I see, but when you got in business for yourself?
Mr. Payne: I just, whatever I made, I made and that’s it.
Dan: Uh huh.
Mr. Payne: And I improved my business as much as I could until finally I got tired and figured that I had enough. (Clock Chimes). I had a home up on South Washington Street which–when I, I got the first ah heart attack–everything was turned over to my daughter who has taken over since then.
Dan: Yeah, how long have you lived here, sir?
Mr. Payne: 4 years.
Dan: 4 years
Mr. Payne: About 4 years, maybe 5.
Dan : Uh huh.
Mr. Payne: It’s all paid for.
Dan: Now ah this Henry Doherty that you spoke of–how do you spell his last name?
Mr. Payne: D-O-H-E-R-T-Y..
Dan: Now you remember the Courthouse when it burned down?
Mr. Payne: Yes.
Dan: That was quite a few years ago, because that’s rebuilt.
Mr. Payne: I think around, ah, I was about 5 years old. 1904, I think.
Dan: 1904 is when it was built, I think, wasn't it or was it?
Mr. Payne: Well it was just ahead. I was only just around about 4 or 5 years old.
Dan: 4 or 5 years old.
Mr. Payne: Yeah, because I know my Father, ah, we were living on Sherman Place only just below there a little ways. I seen so many changes.
Dan: And you say you started out in the Cyrus Clapp–
Mr. Payne: Yes, working for Cyrus Clapp.
Dan: Did this, was the–you worked for Cyrus Clapp?
Mr. Payne: That’s right–he sold out where the Press Building is.
Dan: I see.
Mr. Payne: And that’s where I lived in right behind there in the carriage house when we first moved here.
Dan: Is that right?
Mr. Payne: Yes, upstairs over the carriage.
Dan: Uh huh.
Mr. Payne: Where they kept the horses.
Dan: You're 89 years old now, so it'd be 87 years ago that you lived in back.
Mr. Payne: That’s right.
Dan: Before the Press Building was built.
Mr. Payne: Oh yes, yeah, there was quite a knoll there, yes.
Dan: Uh huh.
Mr. Payne: Which has all been distributed, I mean taken away, you know. Tommy, I think it was Tommy lived next door–he was rich too. I remember Conklin used to live on the corner of Exchange and Hawley Street and that was up on a hill where the YMCA is now and us kids used to ah get barrel staves and ah make skis (Laughter) and ride down there in the wintertime.
Dan: So you were down in Sherman Place, ah, was where your business started or where you moved to–Sherman Place at one time.
Mr. Payne: When I come?
Dan: Yeah.
Mr. Payne: My father was living on Exchange Street at the time.
Dan: Yeah
Mr. Payne: And I come down and, ah, lived with him for a few months when I moved over on ah ah 35 DeRussey Street.
Dan: Is that where you started in business on DeRussey Street?
Mr. Payne: That’s right.
Dan: Uh huh.
Mr. Payne: 35–I lived upstairs over Sam Katz.
Dan: Uh huh, yeah, South Washington Street (to daughter) right right–I can remember when the DeRussey Street bridge went out.
Mr. Payne: Oh dear.
Dan: Uh huh. Well is there anything else you would like to add, Mr. Payne, before I–
Mr. Payne: Well truthfully I can't think of anything of importance.
Dan: You're a very successful business man. Very well respected in your community.
Mr. Payne: I have been until just the last couple of months.
Dan: Uh huh
Mr. Payne: I had very bad luck from vandals–poured some water in the crankcase of my truck and it swelted such, the motor, and I had to have a new one put in and ah it cost me $1635.00 to get another motor put in.
Dan: Gee.
Mr. Payne: And then I burned up my Cadillac.
Dan: Gee, everything comes at once.
Mr. Payne: Right out here in the yard.
Dan: Now when you first started your business, you got a loan from the Bank in Sidney–is that right?
Mr. Payne: That’s right.
Dan: And then you–how many trucks do you own now?
Mr. Payne: l've only got ah the one I'm keeping now–I'm using.
Dan: OK well, I certainly thank you very much, Mr. Payne–I'll play this back for you so you can hear how your own voice sounds.

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Dan O'Neil


Leo J. Payne


33:47 minutes ; 7:19 minutes



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Payne, Leo -- Interviews; Broome County (N.Y.) -- History; Binghamton (N.Y.)

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