Dr. Benjamin F. Payton
Dr. Benjamin F. Payton

Dr. Benjamin F. Payton
Dr. Payton’s final speech as president

Dr. Benjamin F. Payton
Dr. Payton presenting an award to a former student

Dr. Benjamin F. Payton
The Benjamin F. Payton Hall


By Yussuf J. Simmonds and Tasia Smith

Dr. Benjamin F. Payton

“Visionary and fifth president of Tuskegee University for 29 years”

The name ‘Tuskegee’ has a very rich history and for many Black Americans, it will forever be identified with Booker T. Washington and the famous Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. But it was initially named Tuskegee Institute, a historically Black institution in rural Alabama that was the life’s work of none other than the esteemed Black pioneer and educator, Booker T. Washington. In 1985, it was re-named Tuskegee University (TU), a change for the better spearheaded by Tuskegee’s fifth president, Dr. Benjamin Franklin Payton, who followed–in addition of Washington, its first president–Dr. Robert T. Moton, Dr. Frederick D. Patterson (founder of UNCF), and Dr. Luther H. Foster.

In an article printed in the Summer 2010 issue of Tuskegee Magazine, Payton recalled the skepticism proponents of the school encountered when introducing it as an institute. No one knew what to make of the title, and so people often dismissed it as unimportant–students at college fairs would skip over the Tuskegee table, saying “they wanted to go to a university, not a community college.”

When Dr. Payton became president of TU in 1981, he began ambitious efforts to expand facilities, research, and course offerings to include a center for bioethics research, an aerospace program, and the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site. To date, those efforts produced the university’s electronic gateway of the Business Information System Network (BISNet): an internet centered system sponsored by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Rural Business-Cooperative Service (RBS).

During his 29-year tenure, Dr. Payton has striven to continue the university’s legacy of leadership. He had:

¥ Established the Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James Center for Aerospace Science Engineering and Health Education;

¥ Launched Tuskegee University’s first Ph.D. programs (Materials Science and Engineering and Integrated Biosciences);

¥ Developed the Tuskegee University National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care;

¥ Launched the Tuskegee University C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson Department of Aviation Science;

¥ Developed the Tuskegee University Kellogg Conference Center;

¥ Restructured the academic programs into five colleges and reorganized all programs;

¥ Successfully completed a $150 million Capital Campaign by raising $169 million and is now completing an additional $60 million campaign, the Legacy Campaign.

¥ Reconstructed and renovated the entire campus, including new parking, roadways, library, science building, student residence halls and apartments for student on-campus living; and enclosed it all with beautiful brick and cast-iron fences and gates, including a dramatic new set of campus entrances and exits.

The son of Sarah M. Payton and Reverend Leroy R. Payton, Dr. Payton graduated with honors from South Carolina State University receiving a B.A. degree in 1955; a B.D. degree from Harvard University in 1958; an M.A. degree from Columbia University in 1960; and a Ph.D. degree from Yale University in 1963.

When Dr. Payton was tapped to join TU in 1981, the institution was in its 100th year, and he had been contented as program officer for higher education and research at the Ford Foundation, New York City since 1972. But given the chance to take part in shaping such an important legacy (Booker T. Washington’s), Dr. Payton left the big city (N.Y.) for the small town (Tuskegee, Alabama).

He had also served as president of Benedict College, Columbia, S.C. (1967-72); as executive director, Commission on Religion and Race and the Department of Social Justice of the National Council of Churches in the U.S.A. (1966-67); and as director of the Office of Church and Race, Protestant Council of the City of New York (1965-66). As assistant professor at Howard University, Dr. Payton taught social ethics and sociology of religion, and directed a research project and the university’s community service project, Washington, D.C. (1963-65).

And so began his almost three decade long sojourn, spanning from 1981 to 2010, where he initiated an array of major improvements, made a huge impact, pushed for–and achieved–a new level of academic excellence at the famous Tuskegee’s historic institution of learning.

One of Payton’s greatest achievements was the creation of Tuskegee’s first two Ph.D. programs: Integrated Biosciences and Materials Science and Engineering. He also reorganized all academic programs into five colleges, expanded many of those programs, including the development of the first and only Aerospace Engineering department at one of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU).

Dr. Payton focused not only on academic achievement with a strong vision for the future, but also on projects rooted in remembering our past. He launched the Tuskegee Airmen Historical Site, dedicated to the highly decorated, all-Black World War II air squadrons, who trained on campus during the 40’s, and played an important role in the early Civil Rights Movement. But he was not contented to have the past achievements portrayed in just a positive light, he was seeking to shine a bright light on the negatives too; and one of the brightest lights was shined on what became known as the Tuskegee Experiment.

He was instrumental in seeking redress for that horrific tragedy where the U.S. government had participated in a research study where Black men with syphilis were willfully denied treatment to further the degenerated effects of the disease on their bodies. 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 Black men.

According to historical medical records, in 1932, the U.S. Public Health Service set up a base at the John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital on the university’s campus in order to study the long-term effects of untreated syphilis on Black men. Both the subjects and the university believed that the study’s participants were receiving treatment for the venereal disease, when in actuality they were receiving no help at all. The revelation in 1972 that the government had hidden the study’s true purpose shook the trust of Blacks in their government and in the medical profession. Dr. Payton’s 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 Black community. Then 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. Since that time, the university has received since more than $20 million in grants and pledges for the center. Dr. 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.'” (However, the mistrust equally extends to the government). In May of 1999 the university launched the nation’s first African American bioethics center.

Throughout his career, Dr. Payton has received a host of awards and honorary degrees for his scholarly and academic achievements including the Danforth Graduate Fellowship (1955-63); First Place winner of the Harvard Billings Prize (1957); South Carolinian of the Year (1972); and the Napoleon Hill Foundation Award for Outstanding Leadership in Education (1987). In addition, he was the first recipient of the Benjamin E. Mays Award at South Carolina State University.; and has also received a Doctor of Humane Letters from Benedict College and Lehigh University; a Doctor of Humanities from Morgan State University; a Doctor of Laws from Eastern Michigan University, Morris Brown College and South Carolina State University; and a Doctor of Literature from University of Maryland.

In 2002, Dr. Payton was appointed by the president to chair the newly-formed board of advisors of the HBCU. This was Payton’s third presidential appointment: having been previously appointed by President Reagan to the Board for International Food and Agricultural Development, and named by President George H. W. Bush to lead the Task Force on Agricultural and Economic Development to Zaire.

He is a member of many professional and social organizations, including the American Council on Education, the American Higher Education Association, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. and Sigma Pi Phi BoulŽ. His academic honors include membership in Phi Beta Kappa and Alpha Kappa Mu Honor Society.

In a letter in the summer 2010 edition of Tuskegee University Magazine, addressed to the alumni, friends and supporters, Dr. Payton wrote: “… Today, Tuskegee is a contemporary, vibrant, globally recognized and highly competent and competitive research university. Our remarkable standing in the higher education community speaks for itself with solid nationally recognized academic programs, cutting edge research recognized by the nation’s scientific community, contributions to the arts, history and culture that will live on well into the next millennium…” Further on, he continued: “…Few historically Black and indeed other higher education institutions can claim such a productive and impactful agenda…” He ended by urging the alumni, friends and supporters to continue to support the growth and development of the university.

Dr. Payton is married to the former Thelma Plane of Evanston, Illinois; they have two children: Mark Steven, a B.A. degree graduate of Yale University, who also has the M.B.A. degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Business; and Deborah Elizabeth, a B.A. degree graduate of Spelman College. They are also the grandparents of Danielle Marie, Maya Elizabeth, William Isaac and Nicholas Warren Payton.