Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biography of Clara Louise Payne, 1882-1958

By Kimberly Michelle Ferrell
Retired Educator
Belleville Public Schools, MI

Clara Louise Payne was born in Buffalo, New York February 1882. Clara belonged to a well-established family in Buffalo, New York. Her father, Thomas W. Payne, worked as an office clerk and her mother, Grace L. Payne, was a matron who worked at a school. Clara had two siblings, Madeline Payne Middleton and Dr. Earle Clifford Payne, DDS.

Clara's involvement in community organizations was extraordinary. She was an active member of a small African American Buffalo community and was quite involved with a local civic group that organized a hospitality event for African Americans visiting the 1901 Pan American Exposition. Booker T. Washington visited Buffalo in 1901. He visited the National Association of Colored Women's meeting, delivered a speech to the 20th Century Club and toured the Pan American Exposition. Clara was one of the local residents and member of the organizing committee of The Buffalo Progressive Club. This organization organized and hosted a party for prominent people.

During World War I Clara served at Marin Hospital as a nurse volunteer during the influenza epidemic of 1917 and 1918. She was a founding member of the Board of Directors of the Buffalo Urban League and remained involved from 1927 until 1958. Clara helped initiate the first integrated YWCA in the Buffalo area. In 1926 she was elected to the Board of Directors and served as a member of the Y's Business Girls' Council and the Inter-racial Committee.

Payne was also involved in Republican party politics. In April 1920 she was reported as one of two organizers of a Leonard Wood Club among African American women in Buffalo. The newspaper account in the Buffalo Evening News of April 16, 1920 noted, "it is hoped to enroll every colored woman in Buffalo in the league." General Leonard Wood was an unsuccessful candidate for the Republican presidential nomination that year.

Payne was a longtime member of St. Philip's Episcopal Church, a church her grandparents had helped found. Her biographical sketch on the "Uncrowned Community Builders" website notes her fundraising work for the Ladies Auxiliary of the church in 1898 and her role as a speaker at a church event in 1942.

In addition, Clara served on numerous subcommittees and work groups of organizations at a time when African American women were infrequently

members of white women's organizations. Clara's interest in and devotion to the interest of young women was also indicated through her volunteer work as a Girl Scout Troop leader. Clara was also a long serving member and officer in the Buffalo chapter of the NAACP.

She spoke frequently about the African American progress at churches and for social groups. In November 1924 she spoke at a meeting of the Graduates' Association; her topic was "The Migration of the Negro to the North." Another speaking engagement on March 18, 1931 was entitled, "Work Among the Negroes in Buffalo." In June 1921 Payne received an initial appointment as a Home Visitor for the Department of Public Welfare and continued to work for 32 years as a social worker in the welfare department of Buffalo.

Clara died on September 5, 1958 at the age of 76. The Buffalo Urban League Board passed a resolution that concluded: "Among her many virtues there were integrity, tact, gentleness, a delightful sense of humor, and patience. One can hardly do justice to a characterization of Miss Payne unless he is described as a saint who temporarily sojourned on earth."


The African American History of Western New York. The Circle Association.

Uncrowned Queens Institute for Research and Education on Women Inc., "Clara Louise Payne," accessible online at

Valint, Andrew R., "Fighting for Recognition: The Role African Americans Played in World Fairs" (2011). Accessible online at

Buffalo Evening News, 16 April 1920, p. 7.

"Graduates' Association Has Negro Program," Buffalo Courier, 16 November 1924, p. 42.

Buffalo American, 23 June 1921, p. 1.

"Negro Welfare Workers Delight in Poster Exhibit," Buffalo Morning Express and Illustrated Buffalo Express, 22 October, 1921, p. 9.

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