Coy Payne, Chandler’s first and only African-American mayor is being remembered as a trailblazer who overcame unlikely odds to reach the highest office of his community.
Mr. Payne, a former educator and city leader, passed away on Dec. 8. He was 90.
Mr. Payne made history in 1983 by becoming the first African-American to be elected to the Chandler City Council. He made history again in 1990 after voters elected him mayor for two consecutive terms.
His life reflected the societal shifts that took place throughout the 20th century. He was born into a world that offered him few opportunities, yet he left it with the respect and admiration of his community.
The high school that once barred Mr. Payne from attending now has his name memorialized on one of its buildings.
He saw Chandler transform from a pasture of farm fields into the burgeoning suburb it’s become today. But despite his achievements, friends and associates recalled how Mr. Payne always remained graciously humble.
“It always struck me how accessible he was as a mayor,” said Chandler Mayor Kevin Hartke.
He remembered meeting Mr. Payne back when Hartke was finishing his master’s degree and needed help with a research project. Mr. Payne spent hours explaining the history of Chandler’s neighborhoods and demographics, Hartke said.
Mr. Payne will be missed, the mayor said about his predecessor because he was a leader who never held grudges or played politics.
“I think Mayor Payne was very good at just looking for solutions and asking lots of questions,” Hartke added.
Mr. Payne was one of nine children born to Scott and Virgie Payne. His father uprooted the family from their Texas home in the early 1940s and moved to Arizona in search of better economic prospects.
They first settled in Eloy, where Mr. Payne helped his father pick cotton for months before the family could save enough money to purchase an automobile. They drove north and found a rancher near Chandler looking for farmhands.
Education was important to Mr. Payne’s parents so they were discouraged to learn Chandler didn’t have any classrooms for African-Americans students.
“We couldn’t go to school with the white kids and there was no school for black kids in Chandler,” Mr. Payne said during a 2007 interview with History Makers.
Mr. Payne and his siblings were forced to attend a segregated school in Mesa before Chandler opened an all-black elementary school near Chandler Heights Road.
But after graduating from that school, the Payne children had nowhere to go since Chandler High School refused to accept them.
Mr. Payne once told the East Valley Tribune how his father petitioned the local school board to desegregate Chandler High. The petition failed and Mr. Payne always remembered the words of one school board member.
"He said never in his lifetime will he see a black kid in the same class as his kids," Mr. Payne told the Tribune in 2009.
Mr. Payne was forced to take the bus to the all-black Carver High School in central Phoenix. After he graduated, Payne briefly attended Arizona State University before dropping out and enlisting in the U.S. Army.
He saw some combat during the Korean War and used his military benefits to finish his bachelor’s degree in education at ASU. Mr. Payne then started his professional career teaching third graders in Chandler.
He married Willie Woods, an accountant and civil rights activist, and the couple raised six children together.
Mr. Payne spent the next three decades working as a teacher and administrator in the Chandler Unified School District. He retired in 1989, one year before his run for Chandler’s mayor.
His 2-to-1 victory over Jane DuComb, a fellow city council member, made Mr. Payne the first African-American elected mayor of any city in Arizona. He later credited his political success to the support he received from a large cross-section of the community.
"Chandler's black population was just 3 percent," Mr. Payne told the Tribune in 2009. "I couldn't get elected by just the black population."
Justice of the Peace Jay Tibshraeny knew Mr. Payne for more than 30 years – first as a father to several of Tibshraeny’s high school friends and later as a political mentor, role model and friend.
“I knew him before we ran for council because a couple of his sons went to school with me,” recalled the former Chandler Council member, mayor and legislator.
Tibshraeny said that before he entered his City Council race in 1986, he sought Mr. Payne’s advice.
“I got interested in politics and I reached out to him. He was very supportive of me entering and he was very supportive of my campaign,” said Tibshraeny, whom Mr. Payne appointed vice mayor for two consecutive two-year terms when he was mayor.
“He was mayor during a very explosive time of growth for Chandler,” Tibshraeny added.
Chandler’s population ballooned by 96 percent between 1990 and 2000.
During his first term on Council, Tibshraeny recalled how much he admired the way Mr. Payne conducted himself and the Council’s business.
“He had a good way about him. I admired the way he dealt with people at council meetings and the decorum he maintained as Council did its business. I tried to follow his example,” Tibshraeny said.
Mr. Payne’s warm personality kept him popular in Chandler long after he left the mayor’s office.
Chandler Unified named a middle school after Mr. Payne and his wife in 2004. Chandler High School, the campus that prohibited Mr. Payne from attending, honored the former mayor by placing his name on its new gymnasium.
“Coy Payne was a leader in our community and champion for the students of CUSD,” said Chandler High School Principal Larry Rother.
Chandler Men of Action, a nonprofit led by local African-American leaders, annually hands out an award named in honor of Mr. Payne.
Pastor Victor Hardy of Chandler’s Congregational Church of the Valley is scheduled to receive the Coy Payne Man of the Year Award at a banquet in February.
He said Mr. Payne paved the way for so many in the community and influenced them to be their best selves.
“We’re working under that tutelage of what he had to offer to us,” Hardy said. “If it were not for him, there would be no Chandler Men of Action.”
His love of the community will be Mr. Payne’s enduring legacy, Hardy added, as well as his ability to make everyone he came into contact with feel welcomed.
“His warmth was the thing I remember about him the most,” Hardy said. “You could talk about with him anything that was going on.”
A visitation will be held Friday, Dec. 20, from 6-8pm at Bueler Mortuary 14 W. Hulet Drive, Chandler. Services will be Monday, Dec. 23, 10 a.m. at the Chandler Center for the Arts 250 N. Arizona Ave. Chandler.