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Who Was Oscar Payne? EHS Teacher Traces the Life of a Civil War-Era Enslaved Man Who Escaped From Episcopal to Freedom

Since EHS history teacher Mike Reynolds came to the School in 2008, he and his students have been examining what life was like for enslaved people in Alexandria and the Washington, D.C., region. Now, in a local history journal, he has published an account of the life of Oscar Payne, an enslaved man whose stolen labor was rented out to Episcopal, from where he escaped his bonds and fled north to freedom.

“Oscar Payne’s Escape to Freedom From Antebellum Alexandria” is featured in the spring 2020 issue of the Alexandria Chronicle, which is published by the Alexandria Historical Society. The article is the result of several years of Reynolds’s research piecing together newspaper ads, local histories, census records, and an important account of the Underground Railroad by William Still, a pre-Civil War abolitionist who recorded the stories of bondage and escape told by runaways such as Payne. You can read Reynolds's article here.

A native of South Carolina, Reynolds’s interest in Payne’s story was sparked when he found an ad in the July 15, 1858, Alexandria Gazette offering a $200 reward for the “recovery” of Payne if found out of state and $150 if found within Virginia. “Historians have used runaway slave ads for a really long time because it’s hard to find sources that tell us who enslaved people were and what they were like,” Reynolds says. “There's a really rich literature in which historians use the ads to read between the lines and try to understand the humanity of people who were considered property.”

The ad was placed in the Gazette by T.D. Fendall, the nephew of 63-year-old Alexandria resident Mary Dade, who had rented Oscar Payne’s services to the Rev. John Peyton McGuire, Episcopal’s principal. Reynolds notes that research indicates that approximately 30 percent of enslaved people were rented out in urban areas such as Alexandria.

At Episcopal, Reynolds says, it’s likely that Payne did domestic labor or farm or garden work. Talking to William Still, the abolitionist author of “The Underground Railroad,” Payne did not complain of physical abuse but lamented that “no privilege was offered me to study books.”

While Payne told Still that he ran away only to secure his freedom, he noted that two of his brothers who were also enslaved had run away earlier. “It seems that he was not married, had no children, and had few other ties that would have compelled him to stay,” Reynolds writes.

Named Lee Sanford Ainslie, Jr. '56 Mastership Fellows in 2018, Reynolds and colleague Caroline English have helped students build the EHS History Project, an online collection of their research, much of it focused on the School itself. In recent years, students have studied topics such as Episcopal during World War I, the legacy of the Civil War, and the impact of African American staff on EHS before the School’s integration.

Students working with Reynolds and colleague Caroline English have been studying runaway slave ads in recent years as primary sources that “bring the voices of enslaved people into the classroom,” he says. In U.S. history classes this year, they asked students to study Oscar Payne and explore who he was and how his experience relates to their own lives. 

“The Oscar Payne ad gives us the ability to talk about slavery at Episcopal, a place that students love and have such passion for,” he says. “This is a tangible artifact of the past that specifically links Episcopal to slavery.”

Reynolds will become editor of the Alexandria Chronicle in the fall of 2020.