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Carolyn Robertson Payton (1925-2001)

by Gwendolyn P. Keita, American Psychological Association*

Biography of Carolyn Robertson Payton*

Carolyn Robertson Payton is best remembered as the first woman and first African American Director of the United Sates Peace Corps. Her path to this position, as well as her departure say much about her character—open to new opportunities, committed to making a difference, and willing to do what she felt was right no matter the consequences.  Payton accepted the position of field assessment officer for trainees for the newly created Peace Corps in 1964. Although women were usually not given overseas staff positions, in 1966 Payton became the Peace Corps Director for the Eastern Caribbean region stationed in Barbados.  As one of only two female country directors, her success was critical in demonstrating that women could effectively do the job.  This success resulted in gender being dropped as a qualifier for overseas staff positions. After a seven-year absence, Payton was again called to the Peace Corps in 1977, this time by then US President Jimmy Carter who appointed Payton Peace Corps Director.  She served for less than two years.  Her strong views about the Peace Corps’ mission and its implementation strategies, especially regarding the importance of Peace Corps volunteers being nonpolitical, clashed with those of Sam Brown, then Director of Action, the agency with jurisdiction over the Peace Corps.  Payton’s refusal to back down on issues she felt were vital to the Peace Corps’ very existence and the surrounding publicity led President Carter to ask for her resignation.

Although a trailblazer in numerous arenas, Payton’s early life was uneventful.  She was born in 1925 in Norfolk, Virginia.  Her mother was a seamstress and her father a ship steward.  She died at her home in Washington, DC on April 11, 2001.  Payton had two major influences in her life that helped define her future endeavors.  She attributed her courage, loyalty, and commitment to work for equality and justice to her upbringing.  She was from a close knit family that emphasized the value of education. Despite being born into slavery, her grandfather saw to it that all of his children attended college.  Payton graduated from the public schools of Norfolk, Virginia, and received her BS degree in Home Economics from Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1945. Bennett College, a small historically Black women’s college, was the other major influence in Payton’s life.  She noted that Bennett shaped her aspirations, attitudes, and expectations and gave her a sense of her capabilities as a woman.  Payton remained close to Bennett College throughout her life, establishing a scholarship fund there in the late 1990s.

Payton attended the University of Wisconsin from 1945-1948 and completed her MS in Psychology.  Issues related to race were intertwined with Payton’s matriculation at Wisconsin, beginning with the financing of her attendance.  Her tuition and other expenses were paid by the state of Virginia as part of the state’s “separate but equal” policy.  Under this doctrine, the state covered expenses incurred at any out-of-state university if the student pursued  a graduate degree in a discipline available to White students at the White state schools, but unavailable to Blacks at the Black state schools.  Incensed by class discussions of the intellectual superiority of Whites and wanting to prove that there was no difference in intelligence between the races, Payton conducted her masters thesis on a comparative study of the intelligence of Blacks and Whites as measured by the then newly developed Wechsler-Bellevue Test of Intelligence.  She concluded that the test itself was an inaccurate measure of the true ability of Blacks.  In 1976, Payton again focused on testing when she served as a field supervisor for the standardization program of the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale and was responsible for selection of Black participants and the administration and scoring of the testing instrument.  Her efforts marked one of the first times Black participants, selected on the basis of age, gender, and socioeconomic level, were included in the development and application of test norms for a prominent test.

After graduation, Payton took positions as a psychologist at Livingston College in Salisbury, North Carolina, and later as Dean of Women and a psychology instructor at Elizabeth City State Teachers College in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.  She joined the faculty of Howard University in Washington, DC, after completing coursework for her PhD at Columbia University in 1959.  At Howard, she taught child, abnormal, and experimental psychology and conducted research on the perception threshold of verticality in rhesus monkeys. She completed her doctoral degree in counseling and student administration at Columbia in 1962.

Although best known for her work as Peace Corps director, Payton’s major career contribution was made as Director of the Howard University Counseling Service (HUCS) from 1970 to 1977, and later as Dean of Counseling and Career Development from 1979 until her retirement in 1995. While at the HUCS, Payton established a training and supervision component to address the need for a clinical practicum experience for graduate students in the mental health fields.  She also developed a structured in-house training and clinical supervision program for staff and other mental health professionals, in addition to promoting and investing in post-graduate training for her clinical staff.  Through her leadership at HUCS, Payton consistently served as a role model for professional women, especially professional Black women.  During her tenure, the counseling service staff grew from 4 to 15, and provided counseling and therapy to both students and community clients.

Training at HUCS, in addition to the usual clinical material, focused on providing counseling and psychotherapy to ethnic minority, especially African American, men and women.  This program eventually developed into the American Psychological Association (APA)-approved Clinical and Counseling Psychology Pre-doctoral Internship in 1983.  Payton was a trailblazer in the use of group techniques with African American clients, and the HUCS Group Counseling and Psychotherapy Training Program (established later in the mid-1980’s) was a strong component.

Payton was an active member of APA and a fellow of Division 35.  She was one of the original members on the Task Force on the Psychology of Black Women in 1976, now the Section on the Psychology of Black Women.  The Section’s Early Career Award is named in Payton’s Honor (The Carolyn Payton Early Career Award).  Payton served on a number of APA boards and committees including the Committee on Women in Psychology (CWP); the Membership Committee; the Committee of Scientific and Professional Ethics and Conduct; the Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Concerns Committee; and the Policy and Planning Board.  She received numerous awards, including several of APA’s most prestigious.  In 1982, she received the Distinguished Professional Contributions to Public Service Award.  In 1985, the APA Committee on Women in Psychology Leadership Citation Award honored her for her role as “an outstanding teacher, role model, and mentor for women and ethnic minorities.  She has provided leadership on ethical and consumer issues in psychology and in eliminating sex bias in psychotherapeutic practice…her commitment to equality and justice for all oppressed peoples has made a precious difference in all our lives.” In 1997, Payton received the APA Award for Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to Psychology for her “dedication to using psychology to promote better cross-cultural understanding and to end social injustice by influencing political process…[Her] success in overcoming gender and racial barriers to achieve positions of leadership and prestige make [her] a role model to women and ethnic minorities everywhere.

Carolyn Payton is remembered as a foremother of those who pushed for women’s leadership within APA and psychology.  She was a wonderful role model for women, especially women of color, and was honored at the first Multicultural Conference and Summit for her pioneering contributions to multicultural psychology.  Her sharp wit, incisive comments, ability to see through the verbiage, and passion for social justice will be long remembered.  In her article, “Who Must Do the Hard Things?” published in American Psychologist (April 1984), Payton argued that psychology would not survive as a science if we ignored the social implications of our work.  With her departure, it is left to all of us to do the “hard things.”


*Originally published in The Feminist Psychologist, Newsletter of the Society for the Psychology of Women, Division 35 of the American Psychological Association, Volume 28, Number 3, Summer, 2001. Appearing with permission of the author.

Date created: 2010