Wilbert Payne has been serving the community and the nation for much of his life, and he made history last year when he became the first African-American to be elected chairman of the city of Opelika Board of Zoning Adjustments.
“ It’s an honor to be a black elected official and the first to represent my peers and all people,” Payne said.
The new position means a lot to the Opelika native, who grew up in the Jim Crow era of segregated water fountains, restaurants, public facilities and discrimination.
“ I was born in the 1950s, and segregation was still alive,” Payne said. “The experience of being black showed me there was a God. If it wasn’t for God, we would not have made it.”
A passion to make things right
Payne replaced George Dyar and was elected chairman of the board May 16, 2016. Before that, he was the vice chairman.
As chairman, Payne presides over all board meetings, oversees public hearings and determines all points of order and procedures at meetings, unless directed differently by a majority of the board. He also can appoint committees to research any matters found.
The chairman aims to keep things flowing just as they had been before he took on the role.
“ If it’s not broke, I don’t believe in fixing it,” Payne said. “We want to be persistent in our practices. I want to make sure when I reside over the meetings I continue to do the right thing.”
Martin Ogren has known Payne for about 20 years. Ogren, planning director for the city, said Payne is passionate about all he does for the board and residents.
“ He’s got a passion to make things right. He’ll ask questions to spur conversations to make sure everything is correct,” Ogren said. “He asks board members to make comments and get us all involved in making a correct and clear decision. He’s a very active chairman. He asks the right questions.”
Payne believes he has paved the way for more African-Americans to lead.
“ I want to set the right example for them to follow in the future,” he said.
A service to all
On Feb. 17, 1970, Payne was drafted into the U.S. Army.
“ I had a reporting date a year after I graduated high school,” he said. “I had plans to go to school and get a career, but before I graduated, I was drafted.”
After completing two years of service in the Vietnam War, he entered the U.S. Army Reserve, then he moved to the Army National Guard.
He hung up his camouflage, boots and dog tags for retirement July 13, 1970. But his service did not end there.
“ I retired and devoted my full time to the Disabled American Veterans, where I started helping veterans with their benefits from the military,” he said. “I also helped those who were in distress.”
He became commander of the Disabled American Veterans Twin Cities Chapter 95, where he became involved in the Vietnam War Commemoration, a program designed for federal, state and local communities, veterans’ organizations and other nongovernmental organizations to honor and thank Vietnam veterans and their families.
In September, Payne organized a commemoration program, where he awarded Vietnam veterans lapel pins for their service.
“ I wanted to bring the program to Opelika. I submitted paperwork for Chapter 95 to become a partner,” he said. “That was one of my high points. Over 200 veterans were at the event. Today, I am still giving out pins to veterans that qualify or meet the criteria.”
“ I feel like I’m at the high point of my career. I feel like I accomplished my mission in the DAV,” he said.
Payne also is a life member of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars and a certified member of the American Red Cross. He is a part of 100 Black Men of America, All Pro Dad and the Lion Tamers Social and Civic Club of Opelika. Payne is an active member of Green Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Auburn.
The volunteer said his wife, Virginia Payne, supports him through all of his endeavors.
“ Without her, I could not have done any of this,” he said. “My wife is the greatest wife on Earth.”
He and his wife have four children and many grandchildren.
Payne hopes he inspires others in the African-American community.
“ I’m doing these things so people can pick up on it and continue it,” he said. “Moving forward, we need to know where we’re coming from to know where we’re going. It’s not how we fall, but how we get up.”