The story of Clara Ellis Payne’s family is both remarkable and representative of the paradoxes the United States was founded on.
Three generations ago her ancestors lived and worked at Montpelier, the plantation of enslaver and "Father of the Constitution" James Madison. But the freedoms and liberties Madison wrote so eloquently about in the nation’s founding documents were not, in his eyes, meant for Payne’s ancestors.
Throughout her life, Payne has compiled an incredible research collection of her family’s history and genealogy. Her more than 70 binders of information on the different branches of her family, originating in Orange, Virginia, and moving beyond to several other states, provide a look into moments of hope, promise, and denial during the early days of this country. Visitors to the Museum’s Slavery and Freedom exhibition can learn more about these moments.
Those familiar with Virginia and the founding of the United States may recognize Orange as the town nearest Montpelier, the tobacco plantation owned by James Madison. Payne’s great-grandmother and namesake, Clara Madison, was enslaved at Montpelier. Payne has spent decades painstakingly researching local archives, examining and cross-referencing Madison’s remaining papers, and sifting through oral histories and notes jotted in the family Bible. From her research, she has compiled rich documentation of her family’s journey from enslavement to lives as teachers, lawyers, professional athletes, and even a Rockettes dancer. The bulk of this research was donated by Payne to the Montpellier Foundation, “with the expressed wish that it will encourage other African Americans to research and know their own roots.”
Payne has also donated several family heirlooms to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. These items come from the family’s homestead in Orange, Va., established by her grandparents Frank and Polly Ellis in the 1870s. She also donated crayon portraits of her great-grandfather Squire May and his second wife, Roseanna.
These donated household items are typical of a family of the late 19th century. Many people will recognize a grandmother’s sad iron or a great-aunt’s dressing set as items treasured and passed down through generations in their own families.
In addition to these family heirlooms, Payne has provided valuable information to the Smithsonian Institution Archives about Solomon G. Brown, the first African American employee at the Smithsonian Institution. Payne is related to Brown through the marriage of her great-uncle Frederick Ellis.
Payne’s relation to Brown connects her deeply to the founding of the Museum. A letter enclosed in her research about Brown, now digitized by the Smithsonian Archives, indicates her commitment, since as early as 1992, to the founding of a national museum of African American history, a project that took nearly a century to come to full fruition and is further explored in, A Century in the Making, an exhibition about the creation of the Museum found on the Concourse level near the Special Exhibition Gallery.
While the story of the Payne family is notable for its connection to one of the Founding Fathers and the Smithsonian’s early history, it is also characteristic of the African American experience. The objects donated by Clara Ellis Payne to the Museum are similar to those found in the living rooms and attics of many families whose histories contain their own extraordinary stories.
Programming in the Robert Frederick Smith Explore Your Family History Center, where a selection of Payne’s donated objects are on view, will assist current and future genealogists in discovering the fascinating connections within their own family stories.
Written by Katie Knowles, cataloger
Published May 23, 2017
Interested in learning more about Solomon G. Brown and his contributions to the Smithsonian Institution? Check out these resources provided by the Smithsonian Institution Archives:
- Biography and letters of Solomon G. Brown
- Solomon G. Brown Papers
- Scrapbook of Solomon Brown’s family genealogy, as compiled by Clara Ellis Payne
For more information about those enslaved at James Madison's Montpelier read "Putting Faces on the Presidents Slaves" (Washington Post, April 29, 2001) or visit Montpelier's Descendants' Project resource page.