Pacific Beach Middle School students succeed in drive for park renaming to honor two Black educators
When Juliniel Woods and Nuhamin Woldeyes heard how their Pacific Beach school’s first Black educator was treated back in 1945, they launched a campaign to highlight his legacy in San Diego education.
Starting in October, the Pacific Beach Middle School students created surveys, circulated petitions and made Google presentations at school on how parents at what was then Pacific Beach Junior High pushed back against William Payne’s hiring, saying they didn’t think a Black teacher was needed when only two Black families owned property in the community.
The girls built on the momentum created by Pacific Beach residents Paige Hernandez and Regina Sinsky-Crosby, who created a change.org petition in June calling for a community park on the school campus to be renamed after Payne and his wife, Fannie, who also taught in San Diego schools.
Residents in 1945 pushed back against William Payne’s hiring at Pacific Beach Junior High in 1945 because they argued there were few Black students at the school.
On March 9, Juliniel and Nuhamin made a Zoom presentation to San Diego Unified School District trustees, urging them to approve a new name for the park: Fannie and William Payne Community Park.
“We understand that this is a symbolic action that does not directly undo the historical implications of racism and anti-Blackness in Pacific Beach,” Juliniel, 13, told the trustees. “They may not have received the praise they deserved in their lifetime, but now, with your help, we can finally give them their rightful recognition and continue to uncover the history of San Diego.”
Board members unanimously approved their request.
Ashley Hensen, coordinator of the International Baccalaureate program at the school, introduced the two eighth-graders to the project and helped them with the board presentation.
It was a night to remember, Hensen said.
“The coolest thing about it was I think the light bulb went on for them that they’re actually part of the history in Pacific Beach,” she said. “Telling this story, they now are part of it.”
Pacific Beach Middle Joint Use Field is an 82,000-square-foot park on Diamond Street with a baseball and soccer field. It’s used by students during class time and by the community when school is out.
The park got on Hernandez’s and Sinsky-Crosby’s radar after a Black Lives Matter protest was held there. And Hernandez, director of student retention and success at San Diego State University’s Center for Intercultural Relations, read about the Paynes’ story on the San Diego History Center’s website.
William Payne was only the second Black teacher hired by the San Diego Board of Education. His first position was at Pacific Beach Junior High.
In October 1945, Pacific Beach residents and parents collected 1,900 names on a petition demanding his removal to a “more suitable assignment,” according to a San Diego Union article at the time. They argued that there were fewer than six Black students enrolled in the school and only two Black families who owned property in the community.
Will Crawford, the superintendent, defended Payne’s appointment, saying that teachers with the best qualifications were selected for San Diego schools.
“In choosing teachers, neither race nor religion is ever considered,” Crawford said at the time. “We teach democracy in our schools and try to practice democracy in our employment policies. In the past and at present, our employees include representatives from many religions and races — all chosen for their qualifications.”
When she first heard the story, Juliniel said she felt sad but not surprised.
“I was just happy that we were going to work to get him recognized for all his hard work in education,” she said.
Hernandez and Sinsky-Crosby helped Juliniel and Nuhamin as they worked to educate the community about the Paynes and attended meetings of various school district committees and local organizations, such as the Pacific Beach Planning Group, Pacific Beach Town Council and Discover Pacific Beach to seek approval for the park renaming.
“Paige and I are so excited that this story and legacy are being told through members of the community, especially PB middle-schoolers,” Sinsky-Crosby said.
The Paynes’ legacy in San Diego reached beyond Pacific Beach.
Fannie was studying for a bachelor’s degree in English at Talladega College in Alabama when she met William, who was teaching French and Spanish literature at Tuskegee Institute. They married in 1940.
William, a graduate of Sorbonne University in Paris, went on to teach for 23 years at San Diego High School and was a lecturer and an admissions director at San Diego State’s College of Education.
His wife received her master’s degree from San Diego State and worked 36 years in San Diego schools, holding positions as teacher, counselor, district resource teacher for special education and finally vice principal at Dana Junior High School until she retired in 1979.
She was honored as a Woman of Dedication by the Salvation Army and served on the board of Goodwill Industries.
William died in 1986, Fannie in 2008.
Ross Stone, the Paynes’ godson, remembers William as a “wonderful man.”
“He was the ultimate proper gentlemen,” said Stone, 72, of Point Loma, whose father, William Stone, also was a pioneering Black educator in San Diego. “He always wore a suit and tie. He was soft-spoken and he loved Shakespeare.”
Fannie, on the other hand, was “not shy,” Stone said with a laugh.
“I remember after Bill passed I took her out to lunch and she was still as engaged and feisty as ever,” he said.
William also led an intercultural project, along with William Stone and others, that worked with San Diego educators in the late 1940s and beyond on changing how culture and race were taught in schools.
“That was pretty revolutionary,” said Ross Stone, a former chief corporate scientist at McDonnell Douglas Technologies who now is a telecommunications consultant. “You have to realize that prejudice isn’t something we’re born with, it’s something we’re taught.
“They fundamentally changed the way race and ethnicity were taught in San Diego schools. Not just for a few years, but for decades.”
Stone said he doesn’t remember William Payne talking about what happened in Pacific Beach. He was a positive person who went on to achieve greater things, Stone said.
As the efforts to rename the park have progressed, Stone has been watching.
“I’m extremely pleased and particularly inspired by the students who led the way in making this happen, " he said. “I know that Bill and Fanny Payne would be humbled and tremendously honored by the naming of the park.”
The park renaming was one of three similar proposals approved by the San Diego Unified board March 9.
Trustees agreed that Junipero Serra High School will be called Canyon Hills High School after students petitioned for the name change, saying the name honoring the founder of California’s mission system is offensive to indigenous peoples whose ancestors were subjected to its doctrine.
And trustees voted to name a future City Heights campus after the late Rev. George Walker Smith, a faith and civic leader who was the first African-American elected to office in San Diego as a school board member.
“This is long overdue,” trustee Kevin Beiser said after Juliniel’s and Nuhamin’s presentation. “I think that we really ought to take a good, hard look at a lot of our other opportunities to really celebrate and lift up people that have for too many generations been looked over and swept under the rug.”
Trustee Michael McQuary, a Pacific Beach resident, said he was “thrilled” with the girls’ efforts.
“It’s really about the story behind these two kids,” he said after the meeting. “Our goal in San Diego Unified has been to develop and listen to student voices and get them in leadership activities and community issues — to help them understand the issue they are in and how it relates to the larger community.”
But Nuhamin and Juliniel are far from finished with their project. There’s a plaque to be ordered — they’re ready to do a GoFundMe drive to raise the money. And a renaming ceremony to plan — with help from Hernandez and Sinsky-Crosby — for Fannie and William Payne Community Park.
— San Diego Union-Tribune staff writer Kristen Taketa contributed to this report.