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Carolyn L. Robertson Payton (1925–2001)

Dr. Carolyn L. Robertson Payton was the first African American and the first woman to become the director of the U.S. Peace Corps. She was appointed in 1977 by U.S. President Jimmy Carter.

Carolyn L. Robertson Payton was born on May 13, 1925, in Norfolk, Virginia, to Bertha M. Flanagan, a seamstress, and Leroy S. Robertson, a ship steward. She graduated from Booker T. Washington High school in Norfolk in 1941 and received her B.S. degree in Home Economics from Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1945. Payton remained close to Bennett College, establishing a scholarship fund there in the late 1990s.

Payton then attended the University of Wisconsin where her tuition and other expenses were paid by the state of Virginia as part of the state’s policy of sending black graduate students to out-of-state institutions rather than allowing them to received advanced degrees at the state’s universities. Payton received her Master’s in Psychology from Wisconsin in 1948.

After graduation, Payton took positions as a psychologist at Livingston College in Salisbury, North Carolina, and as psychology instructor at Elizabeth City State Teachers College in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, where she also served as dean of women. She joined the faculty of Howard University in Washington, D.C., after completing coursework for her PhD at Columbia University in 1959. She received her PhD from Columbia in 1962.

Dr. Payton first came to work for the Peace Corps in 1964. In 1966 she was named country director for the Eastern Caribbean, stationed in Barbados, serving in this position until 1970. In 1977 President Jimmy Carter appointed her director for the entire agency. She served only thirteen months, however, and was forced to resign because her views on the importance of the Peace Corps mission, its implementation strategies, and volunteers being nonpolitical were diametrically opposed to the then-director of action, Sam Brown.

Payton is best known, however, for her career contribution as the director of the Howard