After serving the mission of Tuskegee University for almost 30 years as president, Dr. Benjamin Payton passed away on the morning of Wednesday, September 28, 2016.
Dr. 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 father’s example, Payton attended South Carolina State University where he earned his B.A. in sociology with honors in 1955. In 1958 he received his B.D. in philosophical theology from Harvard University, and was Danforth graduate fellow from 1955 to 1963. In November of the following year he married Thelma Louise Payton of Evanston, Illinois. He continued his education, by earning an M.A. in philosophy from Columbia University in 1960, and in 1963, he received his Ph.D. in ethics from Yale University.
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. He than move on as an 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 than 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, he than became the president of Tuskegee University where he served until 2010. In 2010, Tuskegee University named Payton President Emeritus.
Succeeding Dr. Luther H. Foster, who had served as Tuskegee’s president for 28 years. Payton, as the institution’s fifth president, 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 institution was 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, battle unbridled racism when he fought to have the Tuskegee Veterans Hospital administrated and rub 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.
During Payton’s tenure, he 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. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan gave the commencement address to the graduating class. The President was also on hand for the dedication of the university’s 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.
Over 30 years of leadership, Dr. 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 said the goal of his administration is to strengthen significantly Tuskegee’s image as a national and regional center of excellence. He left a solid set of footprints for future presidents of the university to follow.
Dr. Payton leaves behind one son, Mark Steven (Christiane) Payton, one daughter, Deborah Elizabeth Payton; four grandchildren, Danielle Marie, Maya Elizabeth, William Isaac and Nicholas Warren Payton; and three brothers and three sisters. He was preceded in death by his wife, Thelma Plane Payton, in 2013, and by two of his brothers, Leroy Oscar Payton and James Israel Payton, in 1998 and 1999.