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Payton, Benjamin F. 1932–

Benjamin F. Payton 1932

University president

At a Glance


When Benjamin Franklin Payton became president of Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama, he not only accepted a professional position, he also accepted a rich heritage in African American education. It was at Tuskegee that Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, and many other blacks, made history. Under Paytons leadership the university established or advanced many programs as part of its mission to provide teaching, research, and service to the community and to the world. Just as Tuskegee is the guardian of numerous African American historical treasures, Payton has acted as the guardian of the legacy passed along to him from previous distinguished presidents.

Payton was one of nine children born to Reverend Leroy R. and Sarah Payton in Orangeburg, South Carolina. His father was a rural Baptist minister as well as a farmer and teacher. Following his fathers example, Payton placed a premium on education, earning a B.A. in sociology with honors from South Carolina State University in 1955. In 1958 he received a B.D. in philosophical theology from Harvard University, and was a Danforth graduate fellow from 1955 to 1963. In November of the following year he married Thelma Louise Plane of Evanston, Illinois. Payton earned an M.A. in philosophy from Columbia University in 1960, and in 1963 he received his Ph.D. in ethics from Yale University.

Throughout the 1960s Payton held a variety of leadership positions that intertwined his interests in religion, race, and education. In 1963 Payton became assistant professor of sociology of religion and social ethics at Howard University. He also served as director of the Howard University Community Service Project in Washington, D.C. In 1965 he became the director of the Office of Church and Race, Protestant Council of the City of New York, serving for one year. His next job was as executive director of the Commission on Religion and Race and the Department of Social Justice of the National Council of Churches in the USA, where he served until 1967. That year he became president of Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina. He held this position until 1972, when he became program officer of Education and Public Policy for the Ford Foundation in New York City.

In 1981 Payton was named president of Tuskegee

At a Glance

Born December 27, 1932 in Orangeburg, SC; son of Leroy Ralph Payton, a minister, teacher, and farmer, and Sarah (Mack) Payton; married Thelma (Plane) Payton; children: Mark Steven and Deborah Elizabeth. Education: South Carolina State University, BA, 1955; Harvard University, BD 1958; Columbia University, MA, 1960; Yale University, PhD, 1963.

Career: University president. Howard University, assistant professor of sociology of religion and social ethics, 1963-65; Howard University Community Service/Research Project in Washington, DC, director, 1963-65; Protestant Council of the City of New York, director of the Office of Church and Race, 1965-66; National Council of Churches in the USA, executive director of the Commission on Religion and Race and the Department of Social Justice, 1966-67; Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina, president, 1967-72; Ford Foundation in New York City, program officer, Higher Education and Research, 1972-81; Tuskegee University, president, 1981-.

Selected awards South Carolinian of the Year, 1972; Napoleon Hill Foundation Award for Outstanding Leadership in Education, 1987; Benjamin E. Mays Award at South Carolina State University (first recipient); honorary doctorates from: Benedict College, Lehigh University, Morgan State University, Eastern Michigan University, Morris Brown College, and University of Maryland.

Addresses: HomeGrey Columns, 399 Montgomery Road, Tuskegee, Al 36083, Office teeOffice of the President, Tuskegee University, Tuskegee, AL 36083.

Institute (later to be changed to University), succeeding Dr. Luther H. Foster, who had served as the Institutes president for 28 years. As the Institutes fifth president, Payton followed in the footsteps of men who had worked hard to make it a superior institution of higher education for blacks, and later for all races throughout the South and the United States. The Institute had been founded in 1881 by Booker T. Washington to educate rural blacks, most of whom received little or no education at the time. The second president, Robert Russa Moton, battled unbridled racism when he fought to have the Tuskegee Veterans Hospital administrated and run by an all-black staff. The university developed over the years into an educational institution of renown among black and white colleges for its programs, including a distinguished Ph.D. program in Materials Science and Engineering. Payton became president of the Institute during its centennial celebration.

Payton traveled in 1982 with then-Vice-President George Bush as educational advisor to Africa, participating in a seven-nation tour. The tour went on to visit the Cape Verde Islands, West Germany, and Bermuda. During this visit he realized that the Tuskegee Institute, despite its reputation, suffered from an identity crisis. He told Jet magazine, I found people really dont know what type of institution Tuskegee is. Foreigners frequently asked Bush why he chose an official of what they thought was a community college as one of his key advisors. Vice President Bush was constantly having to explain. He soon got tired of that and began introducing me as the president of Tuskegee University. Payton brought the issue to the board of trustees of the school and in 1985 the official name was changed from Institute to University.

Payton has received presidential appointments; Ronald Reagan appointed him to the Board for International Food and Agricultural Development (BIFAD) in 1983; he served for three years. He became team leader of the Presidential Task Force on Agricultural and Economic Development to Zaire in 1984. The following year he and a 15-member task force toured the Republic of Zaire, where he presented the George Washington Carver Medallion to President Mobutu Sese Sekou on behalf of U.S. higher education. The task force worked to identify policies, procedures, and resources to help increase Zaires capacity to develop its food supply.

A highlight during Paytons leadership was President Ronald Reagans commencement address to the graduating class in 1987. The President was also on hand for the dedication of the universitys General Daniel Chap-pie James Center for Aerospace Science and Health Education. General James was the first black 4-star Air Force general and a graduate of Tuskegee University.

Tuskegee University is home to the Booker T. Washington Home and the George Washington Carver Museum-both national historic sites-on campus, but Payton wanted Moton Field to receive that same recognition. Moton Field was the training ground for the Tuskegee Airmen, an elite squadron of black fighter pilots during World War II which came out of the Tuskegee Institute. In his July 1998 statement before Congress, seeking approval of Tuskegee Universitys Moton Field as a national historic site, Payton said, In addition to its role as an educational institution, Tuskegee University is also guardian of an important national treasure. Congress authorized the site in the fall of 1998.

Not content to have the past achievements of African Americans recognized, Payton also sought redress for past wrongs. In 1996, Payton was a member of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study Legacy Committee which actively pursued a government apology for its participation in the 40-year study on the degeneration of syphilitic African American men. In 1932, the U.S. Public Health Service set up a base at the John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital on the universitys campus in order to study the long-term effects of untreated syphilis on African American men. Both the subjects and the university believed that the studys participants were receiving treatment for the venereal disease, when in actuality they were receiving no help whatsoever. The revelation in 1972 that the government had hidden the studys true purpose shook the trust of African Americans in their government and in the medical profession. Paytons committee hoped to rectify part of that mistrust through a formal apology from President Bill Clinton and the establishment of a center to provide public education about the study and training programs for health care providers, and to serve as a clearinghouse for ethics in scientific research.

In 1997 President Clinton publicly apologized on national television to the participants of the study and their families, to Tuskegee University, and to the larger African American community. The president announced a $200,000 grant to Tuskegee University to initiate the plans for a National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care. The university received since that time more than $20 million in grants and pledges for the center. Payton was quoted as saying of the bioethics center in The Tuskegee Syphilis Study, One mission would be to address the legacy of mistrust of medical research institutions that lingers from the Syphilis Study. In May of 1999 the university launched the nations first African American bioethics center.

In over 18 years of leadership Benjamin Payton has indeed followed in the footsteps of many great men who served at Tuskegee University or who graduated from it. He helped transform it into an institution of higher learning that is nationally and internationally recognized for its competency in many fields but especially in the biomedical sciences, engineering, life and physical sciences, agriculture and the food sciences, education, and business. He has said the goal of his administration is to strengthen significantly Tuskegees image as a national and regional center of excellence. He will leave a solid set of footprints for future presidents of the university to follow.



Gray, Fred D., The Tuskegee Syphilis Study, Black Belt Press, Montgomery, Alabama, 1998, p. 137.


Jet, April 2, 1981, p. 16; March 18, 1985, p. 22; July 29, 1985, p. 23.

The Tuskegee News, October 29, 1998.


Additional information for this profile was obtained from a statement by Dr. Benjamin F. Payton before the Committee on Resources Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands, U.S. House of Representatives, July 28, 1998; Tuskegee Gram, Tuskegee University, December 1998; the Tuskegee Syphilis Study Legacy Committee Report web site, at; and the Tuskegee University web site, at

Sandy J. Stiefer

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