There is no need for generations to unfold to recognize the remarkable career of Dr. Benjamin F. Payton. No need to wait for the years to enshrine a man who made his transition on Sept. 28 in Estero, Fla. He was 83, and what a productive 83 years.
For nearly 30 of those years, Payton was the president of Tuskegee University, the famed learning institution founded by Booker T. Washington in 1881. What Washington’s vision began, Payton extended. And from a small agricultural institution that the students helped to erect, it has grown into a full-fledged and highly recognized citadel of learning,
It was in 1985 that Payton began his plan to expand the university when he established the school’s first doctoral program. He also conceived a College of Business and Information Science, the General Daniel “Chappie” James Center for Aerospace and Health Education and the Continuing Education Program. In his capacity as president, he was instrumental in a variety of fundraising endeavors that bolstered the school’s endowment. Overall, he generated approximately $240 million.
For many years Tuskegee was best known for its heroic airmen of World War II and was ignominious as the place where the government conducted experiments on Black men who suffered from syphilis and had penicillin withheld from them. In 1997, President Clinton, at the urging of Payton, apologized for the tragic mistreatment of 600 Black men. Dozens of men died as a result of this experiment and many others infected their families and other people in the community.
Although it was called the Tuskegee experiment, the study was conducted by U.S. Public Health Service and it went on for some 40 years. Payton told the press after Clinton’s apology that “it was long overdue.”
Along with the apology, Clinton announced that a grant of $200,000 would be given to start a National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care at Tuskegee.
Payton was born Dec. 27, 1932, in Orangeburg, S.C., the second of nine children of the Rev. Leroy Ralph Payton, an indigent pastor, farmer and teacher, and the former Sarah Mack.
The humble background was never a stumbling block for Payton’s inquiring mind and solid native abilities. He was instilled with a sense of purpose and achievement. And he was not alone in excelling in school. All of his siblings earned college degrees. But Payton was the recipient of four degrees—a bachelor’s degree in sociology from South Carolina State University in 1955, a bachelor of divinity in philosophical theology from Harvard, a master’s in philosophy from Columbia University and a doctorate from Yale.
In the mid-60s, Payton was the director of the Office of Church and Race of the Protestant Council of the City of New York (now the Council of Churches of the City of New York). Subsequently, he was executive director of the National Council of Churches’ Commission on Religion and Race.
Throughout all of these academic accomplishment, Payton never lost sight of his commitments, to social and racial justice. When he became Tuskegee’s fifth president in 1981, exactly a century after the school was founded, he had the platform in which to promote some of his dreams and ideas.
His desire for civil and human rights was strongly manifested when he helped organize the historic March on Washington in 1963. When professor Daniel Moynihan issued his infamous report on the dysfunctionality of the Black family, Payton was among the first to voice his objection, criticizing the report and viewing it as a total misapprehension of Black life. In other words, it was just another study in which Black men were blamed for their own impoverishment.
Payton and other African-American thinkers and activists were mainly upset with Moynihan’s solutions for the presumed problem—send Black men off to military duty.
In the late 60s, when Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was facing exclusion from Congress, Payton was a leading advocate for the congressman, insisting that he not be expelled. Payton’s appeal was for naught, but Powell was later re-elected.
From 1967 to 1972, Payton was the president of Benedict College in Columbia, S.C. He then returned to New York City to assume a post as program officer for higher education at the Ford Foundation. He would remain in this position for nearly a decade before taking over the helm at Tuskegee.
In 1982, he traveled with Vice President George Bush as educational adviser to Africa, participating in a seven-nation tour. One product of the tour was his realization that Tuskegee suffered from an identity crisis. “I found people really don’t know what type of institution Tuskegee is,” he recalled. “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 president of Tuskegee University.”
Payton’s distinguished career as an educator ended with his retirement from Tuskegee in 2010, but, according to Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, Payton had “fostered innovations and academic excellence, playing a key role in Tuskegee University becoming the outstanding institution of higher learning that it is today.”
“It was clear to me that if Tuskegee University was going to come into its own, it must reach for the stars and seek to be the best in sculpting out new areas of instruction,” Payton said, reflecting on the progress he had paved. “It was important to pick areas where we were already strong, and engineering was one of them.”