Benjamin Franklin Payton, a civil rights advocate who was instrumental in transforming the historically black Tuskegee Institute in Alabama into Tuskegee University as its fifth president, was posthumously honored by fellow alumni of South Carolina State University and dignitaries from across the state on the Orangeburg campus Feb. 9-10.
Having also served as president of Benedict College in Columbia until 1972, Payton was remembered as a higher education leader, orator, scholar, ethicist and public intellectual. He died on Sept. 28, 2016.
Congressman James E. Clyburn moderated a forum on Payton's life at the Barbra A. Vaughan Fine Arts Center on Saturday, Feb. 10.
The panel included Claflin President Dr. Henry N. Tisdale; Dr. Charlotte Morris, interim president, Tuskegee University; Cecil J. Williams, author and acclaimed civil rights-era photographer and Rev. Dr. James P. Quincy III, pastor of Lee Road Baptist Church in Cleveland, Ohio.
In a program excerpt, Congressman John Lewis wrote, "Dr. Benjamin Payton was a leader with vision. He not only wanted to accomplish great things, but he wanted to help people, to touch people, through the power of education. His wisdom and moral leadership often served as a source of inspiration for many, and the legacy he leaves creates a high mark of achievement that will endure within the annals of our history for generations to come."
Payton's sister, Mary Payton Padgett, said, "We are here today to joyously celebrate, recognize, honor and appreciate this homegrown boy who was nurtured and reared by hometown folk who cared. Benjamin Franklin Payton started at the bottom and rose to the top."
The forum highlighted Payton's rise to leadership, focusing on his educational achievements. Despite his humble beginnings as the second of nine children born to Rev. Leroy and Sarah Mack Payton on Dec. 27, 1932, he received four degrees: a bachelor’s in sociology from South Carolina State College in 1955, a Bachelor of Divinity from Harvard University in 1958, a Master’s in philosophy and religion from Columbia University in 1960 and a Ph.D. in social ethics from Yale University in 1963.
Payton won an apology from the United States, delivered by President Bill Clinton in 1997, for the federal government’s infamous four-decade “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.”
He established Tuskegee’s first doctoral programs and also established the General Daniel “Chappie” James Center for Aerospace Science and Health Education, the Continuing Education Program, the National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care and the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center. Payton oversaw fundraising campaigns that generated nearly $300 million.
In addition, he was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2002 to chair the newly-formed Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. He was also appointed by President Ronald Reagan to the Board for International Food and Agricultural Development and by President George W. Bush to lead the Task Force on Agricultural and Economic Development to Zaire.
Payton's wife, the former Thelma Plane, died in 2013. He is survived by their children, Mark Steven and Deborah Elizabeth and grandchildren.
Resolutions honoring Payton were presented by state Sen. John Matthews and Rep. Jerry Govan on behalf of the S.C. Senate and House; Councilman Willie Owens on behalf of Orangeburg County Council; Mayor Michael C. Butler and Councilwoman Liz Zimmerman Keitt on behalf of the City of Orangeburg; Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. and Sigma Pi Phi Boulé.
During the event, Dr. Cecil W. Payton proposed the establishment the Benjamin F. Payton Scholarship and the annual Benjamin F. Payton Lecture Series at S.C. State.