Fluvanna singer toured the world

Black History Month

By Heather Michon



On August 23, 1821, an African-American performer named Charles Payne died of heart failure in a hotel in Amritsar, India — ending an epic journey begun more than seven decades earlier in Fluvanna County.


Little is known about Payne and his family prior to 1880. He was born in Fluvanna around 1849, the second of nine children born to an enslaved couple named Richard and Harriet Payne. By 1870, the family was farming in Cunningham, with 21-year old Charles employed as a farm hand.


Sometime between 1870 and 1874, the entire family moved north to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where most would spend the rest of their lives.


Charles worked odd jobs for the next several years, including a stint waiting tables in the Harvard University dining hall. A talented singer, he eventually came to the attention of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a famous African-American singing group that originated out of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee in the late 1860s.


For the next four decades, Payne lived the nomadic life of a hardworking performer. The Fisk Jubilee Singers (later renamed the Original American Jubilee Singers) eventually focused their touring primarily on Europe, where black performers were more accepted by white audiences. Payne only returned to the United States once after 1900.


In 1895, Payne and three others split away from the Original American Jubilee Singers to form a male quartet called The Black Troubadours. Playing mostly music halls, their shows included spirituals, folk songs, comedy bits, and their show-stopper: an original song called Clever Cats Quartette, which always “amused the audience, especially on account of the ‘miaoows’ in different pitches,” said one reviewer.


Critics frequently praised Payne’s fine voice, with one saying “the notes flowed from the tenor’s lips like pearls…”


World War I limited their touring, but by December 1918, the Troubadours were in Vladivostok, Russia, entertaining American troops then working to protect the Trans-Siberian Railroad. The YMCA had outposts all over the region, and this first Far Eastern tour took them through Siberia, China, and Japan.


In 1920, the 71-year old singer applied for one last passport. He told the State Department, he would be touring “China, Hongkong (sic), India, Batavia (Dutch East Indies), the Straits Settlement, Suez ports,” and, for the first time in 13 years, return home to the United States.


He died in India the following summer. There is no record that his body was returned home.


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