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KJZZ Profiles An Arizona Original: Coy Payne, Arizona's First African American Mayor

Coy Payne was a lot of things to a lot of people. He was Chandler’s first and only African American mayor, and in that role he helped shape policy that eventually made that city what it is today.

But Payne wasn’t just a politician. He was an educator, a mentor and a father. Coy Payne died in December at age 90. He leaves a legacy behind.

"This is a newspaper article when he passed, and in here the caption says he was wise, he was kind," read Carolyn Payne, Coy Payne’s daughter. "I'm just collecting some of his personal things and I don't know we might do a museum who knows in the future what we will do."

Carolyn Payne was in her 30s when her father made history. In 1990, he became Chandler and Arizona’s first African American mayor in a landslide election,  according to HistoryMakers, the country’s largest African American video oral history archive.

But to Carolyn Payne, "He was just Daddy," she said.

A dad who she described as being very present, very involved. Carolyn Payne talked about a father who nurtured his children’s interests and encouraged them to pursue their passions. It’s something Carolyn Payne says he wanted for everyone.

"And to accomplish, what you're here on earth to accomplish, whatever that is, whatever your innate gifts and abilities are, to realize them and to develop them and then to become great men and women of society," she said.

And that’s exactly what Coy Payne tried to do. First, a brief history lesson from Eduardo Pagan. He’s a Bob Stump Endowed Professor of History at Arizona State University. 

"So he came to Arizona at the age of 12 from Texas. His parents were sharecroppers and their first stop was in Eloy," he said.

There, they picked cotton, he says. From Eloy, they eventually moved to Chandler.

"And, so when he grew up in Chandler, Chandler was a segregated town just like everywhere else was in the United States," he said. "It wasn't any different."

Which meant Coy Payne attended a segregated middle school and high school. But that segregation — growing up in what Pagan calls “compressed circumstances” — forged Coy Payne into the person he would eventually become.

"For me, he grew up in this environment that defined him by his color, but by force of his character, he was able to rise above that and was not defined solely by color not defined by how society saw him," said Pagan. "But he was defined as really as a wonderful, well-rounded human being."

But, back to that history lesson: Coy Payne graduates high school, he’s drafted to fight in the Korean War, comes home, marries his sweetheart, Willie Woods, and earns his degree in education from Arizona State University.

And eventually becomes the assistant principal at Chandler Junior High School.

"That is a calling to work with that particular age group," he said. "To be able to finish your career at that position with that age group tells me had that ability to reach young people."

But it wasn’t just Chandler’s youth that he connected with — it was also his community, his colleagues.

Justice of the Peace Jay Tibshraeny first met Coy Payne when he ran for Chandler City Council in the mid-1980s.

"You know, with Coy and the Coy I knew, it was always service above self, serve your community, serve your school district, serve your family," Tibshraeny said.

"... [T]he Coy I knew, it was always service above self, serve your community, serve your school district, serve your family." — Jay Tibshraeny

Tibshraeny would go on to serve as Payne’s vice mayor. For two terms, Coy Payne and Tibshraeny worked closely together to lay the foundation through their policies to create the Chandler that we know today.

"He was just real proud of the way things were going and the way we were moving the community forward," he said.

And when Tibshraeny became mayor of Chandler after Coy Payne, "we took what he did and we built on it and I think that made him feel real good," said Tibshraeny.

The thing about Coy Payne is that he had this ability to connect with people from all walks of life. And that helped him be the leader, even after he left politics, that so many people like Pastor Victor Hardy admired.

"Mayor Payne, to me was a touch in history. I was able to touch to history and talk to history," Hardy said.

Hardy met Coy Payne about a decade or so ago, roughly around the same time Hardy created Chandler Men of Action, which supports and celebrates African American men. In fact, every year, the group presents the Coy C. Payne Man of the Year Award. And when Hardy told Payne that he was naming the award after him, what was his response?

"Yeah, right," laughed Hardy. "That was that was what he said. He said, 'Yeah, right.' But I was like, 'No, we need to celebrate who you are.' ... But the thing of it is, is that he understood his history. He understood that he had made a roadway for others to follow."

And that’s what Hardy and others who knew and admired Coy Payne say they'll continue to do. And pass on the lessons that Coy Payne not only talked about but lived — like this one Hardy recalled: "We fall down. We get up. But when we get up, we need to take a step forward."

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KJZZ senior field correspondent Kathy Ritchie has 20 years of experience reporting and writing stories for national and local media outlets — nearly a decade of it has been spent in public media.