April 16, 2001 - Director Carolyn Payton remembered - she fought for agency

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Director Carolyn Payton fought for the Peace Corps

Read and comment on this obituary of Director Carolyn Payton who fought for the Peace Corps during her tenure in the Carter Administration and whose insistence that the Peace Corps operated better as an
independent organization ultimately triumphed. Read the full story at:


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by Samantha Ragsdale

Carolyn Robertson Payton has been a powerful advocate for women's and minority rights, a pioneer in cross-cultural and ethnic minority psychology as well as the early movement for specialized training for psychotherapists for treating clients of an ethnic minority. Not only was she the first woman and the first African American psychologist to hold the position of director of the U.S. Peace Corps, but she was the first individual psychologist.

Payton was born on May 13, 1925 in Norfolk, Virginia to Leroy Solomon Robertson and Bertha Flanagan Robertson. Her father was a chef and her mother a seamstress and homemaker. She has an older sister, Jean Robertson Scott, who went on to become an elementary school supervisor. Payton and her sister grew up during the Depression, but her parents' occupations afforded them adequate food and clothing, protecting her from the wide-spread impoverishment of the time. Rather than monetary deprivation, Payton's childhood is marked by memories of ramped racism. She vividly remembers the outdoor toilets for blacks at her elementary school, the "for whites only" signs and the many other injustices. She was acutely aware, however, that she was guaranteed certain rights as an American and from a young age fought to attain those rights for herself and others.

Payton's parents were very supportive of education for her and it was assumed that she would attend college. Her father chose Bennett College in North Carolina for her, a distinguished college for black women. Carolyn was influenced by the many female leaders, activists and teachers who frequently lectured at the college. In particular, a professor and the first female president of the college, Willa B. Player, was a strong role model for Carolyn during her undergraduate years. Payton learned from her that African American women could obtain and succeed in major leadership roles. She was also influenced by Eleanor Roosevelt, whom she met while she was at Bennett College, as well as many pioneer civil rights leaders such as Mary McCloud Bethune, Nannie Burroughs, Mary Church Terrell, and Charlotte Hawkins Brown.

Payton's decision to pursue psychology at the graduate level was a pragmatic one. She apparently chose it to qualify for a state voucher system that would pay for education when equivalent degrees were not available at African American colleges. Knowing of fellow Bennett alumni who had gone to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, she chose to pursue her graduate degree there. Payton had majored in home economics at Bennett College and left with only nine credits in psychology. Because of the remaining required courses in psychology, it took her three years to get her masters degree. While at the University of Wisconsin, she was the only black student in her classes and remembers frequently feeling lonely and isolated. She longed for the support and sense of community she had so enjoyed at Bennett College. During this time, she moved to the what she called the "Bush," a black ghetto in Madison. In this community she found the support she had been missing and soon married a police detective, Raymond Rudolph Payton, to whom she was only married for four years.

In 1948, she received her M.S. degree in clinical psychology. She felt that her only career option was to become an instructor at a black institution, so she applied and was hired at Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina. She was the only psychologist on the faculty, which afforded her the freedom to explore her particular areas of interest. She continued working at Livingstone for the next five years, until she learned of a position as Dean of Women and psychology instructor at Elizabeth City State Teachers College in North Carolina. The challenge of the administrative responsibilities appealed to her greatly and she accepted the position. As Dean of Women she was considered a role model for female students and was to serve as a substitute parental figure for them. In contrast to her own casual style, she was expected to uphold and exemplify a strict dress code and was apparently very successful in this position. Three years later, she was recruited to become associate professor of psychology at Virginia State College. The position was very attractive to her; it enabled her to be closer to her family and to work in a "real" psychology department. The position entailed half-time work as an undergraduate professor and half-time as clinical counselor, her first clinical position. In this position she conducted psychological testing and provided psychotherapy to students.

In 1952, she began taking summer courses at Columbia University's teachers college. Although she had not originally intended to pursue a degree, over the years she had accumulated such a large number of credits that later in 1958 she applied as a doctoral candidate to the teacher's college. She took a leave of absence from Virginia State College to pursue this degree and received her Ed.D. in 1962.

In 1959, Payton became an assistant professor at Howard University in Washington D.C. Here she worked in a primate laboratory which led to her award of a three year grant from the National Institute of Mental Health. Her work focused mostly on perception, with the ultimate goal of building on the research and studying racial perception in young children. Around this time, however, President Kennedy was establishing the Peace Corps and Payton was recommended by her university to assist in the design of selection procedures for peace corps service. She later became a field assessment officer for trainees preparing to serve in West Africa. She employed psychological tests, interviews, clinical observations, peer reviews and other data to assess trainees' physical, mental and technical qualifications for service.

Over the next few years, Payton became increasingly involved in the Peace Corps, eventually living on camp sites and traveling extensively overseas. She became particularly interested in determining the conditions that would lead to the most satisfying experience for the volunteers. She was appointed deputy director for the Caribbean region in 1966 and the next year director of the post. At the time, Payton was one of few women appointed to such positions; she was one of only two female country directors. Payton's success in this position was very influential in demonstrating that women could be very effective in overseas programs and paved the way for subsequent women to fill such high positions.

In 1970, Carolyn Payton returned to Howard University to direct the University Counseling Service (UCS). Payton utilized this position to the fullest, expanding the small agency primarily involved in career/vocational counseling into a large, multi-service counseling and training center that was very involved in the university and community. Believing that the services were underutilized by staff and students and too detached from university life, she expanded the staff and services of the center, both for the university and the community. She and her staff became involved in Student Special Services and the Center for Academic Reinforcement, which helped under-prepared students to succeed at the university. She redefined the mission of the agency by demonstrating that academic advising was not enough, that staff and students could benefit from psychological services. She also did much to destigmatize counseling and extends services to the community at large.

She received permission from the vice-president of student affairs to begin seeing community clients at the center, which did much to offer services to the black community that otherwise had limited access to psychological services. She incorporated group therapy methods and established training and supervision components into the program. She thought group techniques were especially important for black clients, as their lives were intricately connected to family and community groups. As the program grew she decided to seek further training for herself at the Psychiatric Institute Foundation. She also sent many of her staff members for training. Eventually UCS became a training institute itself, with an emphasis on training clinicians for work with ethnic and minority clients. Payton was an early pioneer in this movement for special training aimed at work with ethic minorities. She has forwarded the movement though her training and supervision of hundreds of therapists, as well as her countless speeches and conference presentations. She was also instrumental in making counseling services available to lower-income clients. She publicly advocated short-term group therapies as a way of minimizing costs and increasing availability. In addition, she is largely responsible for making the counseling center an APA accredited counseling psychology internship site, which is still one of the few in existence at primarily black institutions.

In 1977, President Carter appointed her to the position of Peace Corps director. She accepted the position, becoming the first woman, the first black and the first psychologist to receive the presidential appointment. She was responsible for the work of over 6,000 volunteers in 63 countries. Lasting only thirteen months however, her position was cut short by her own resignation. Many organizational changes, which she could ultimately not abide, had taken place since her leave of absence. Under the Nixon administration, the corps began changed its recruitment focus from seeking recent college graduates with liberal art backgrounds to hiring experienced, highly skilled and primarily white, male volunteers. She found it difficult to train this type of worker, as she perceived that they felt taught down to, by a black female. The peace corps had also lost its previous autonomy, as it had then come to be administered by ACTION, an umbrella organization of the government. The head of the agency apparently wanted to continue hiring smaller, but better qualified forces of volunteers, which Carolyn vehemently disagreed with. She refused to compromise her position and eventually stepped down. In a speech she expressed her position, stating "It is wrong to use the Peace Corps as a means of delivering a message to particular constituencies in the U.S., or to export a particular political ideology." She later thought that her decision to step down had at least brought to the attention of the President that the Peace Corps operated better as an independent organization. In 1981 it regained its former independence.

In 1979 she returned to Howard University, where she would stay until just last year, continuing her dedicated work towards the development of UCS. Throughout her career she was very active in the APA, serving as a member of The Committee on Scientific and Professional Ethics and Conduct, The Task Force on Sex Bias and Sex Role Stereotyping in Psychotherapeutic Practice, The Committee on Women in Psychology, The Committee on Lesbian and Gay Concerns and The Policy and Planning Board. She was very instrumental in increasing APA representation of minority groups including women, ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians and the handicapped - arguing that more diverse representation would lead to a better perspective on social problems. She was also adamant about APA involvement in public policy. She was an active member of The Public Policy Committee and wrote an article entitled "Who must Do the Hard Things?" (Year) in which she argued that psychology would not survive as a science without attention to its social implications and responsibilities. She thought psychologists should be very active in politics surrounding social justice. She urged psychologists to "place our talents, our expertise, and our energy in the service of our conscience as well as our discipline" (Payton, 1984, p. 395). Payton has made generous contributions to Bennett College, her alma mater, believing that her education there was so greatly influential in her development and wanting to give something back (Keita & Muldrow, 1990) (Smith, 1992).


Keita, G.P. & Muldrow, T. (1990). Carolyn Robertson Payton (1925-). In O'Connell, A.N. & Russo, F.F. (Eds.) Women in psychology: A bio-bibliographic sourcebook (pp. 266-273). New York: Greenwood Press.

Payton, C.R. (1984). Who must do the hard things? American Psychologist, 39, 391-397.

Smith, J.C. (Ed.) (1992). Notable Black American Women (pp. 833-834). Detroit: Gale Research.


Academic American Encyclopedia, Vol. 1. (1982). Danbury, Connecticut: Grolier.

Brown, W. (1978, December 8). "Political Activism" Peace Corps Goal, Ex-Director Asserts. Washington Post.

Coughlin, E.k. (1977). Changing the Peace Corps. Chronicle of Higher Education, 15 (8).

"First Black Peace Corps Head Forced to Resign Her Post" (1978). Jet 55, 6.

Payton, C.R. (1988). Carolyn Robertson Payton. In A.N. O'Connel & N.F. Russo (Eds.), Models of Achievement (pp. 229-242). Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Redmond, Coates. (1986). Come as You Are - The Peace Corps Story. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Soviet Union and East European Political Dictionary. (1984). Oxford: ABC Clio Information Services.

United States Government Manual (1990, 1991). Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Who's Who in America. 45th Edition. Vol. 2. (1988). Willmette, Ill: Macmillan Directory Division.

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