Dr. Carolyn L. Robertson Payton is the first woman and first Black director of the Peace Corps. As a leading psychologist and educator of her era, Dr. Payton helped give group therapy techniques wider exposure among Black clients and providers.
Payton was born May 13, 1925 in Norfolk, Va. The Bennett College graduate attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, earning a M.S. in Clinical Psychology. She then earned an Education doctorate from Columbia University. During her post-graduate studies, Payton worked as an educator and landed a prime job as an associate professor of psychology at Howard University. This would be the start of a deep connection with the celebrated HBCU.
In 1964, Payton took a job with the Peace Corps in 1964 as a field assignment officer for volunteers serving West Africa. In 1967, she was named director of the Caribbean region for the Corps. Payton stepped down from the organization in 1970 and returned to Howard to direct its University Counseling Service (UCS) helping to expand its impact on the neighboring community.
She returned to the Corps in 1977 after President Jimmy Carter’s appointment, but left after just 13 months as a result of clashes with ACTION director Sam Brown, who headed a federal domestic volunteer organization whose ideals didn’t line up with Payton’s views.
In 1979, Payton found herself back at Howard, this time as its dean of Counseling and Career Development, doing so while also advancing psychology services for communities of color. The longtime member of the American Psychological Association spent over four decades with the organization and helped lead its task force related to the psychological needs of Black women.
Dr. Payton passed in 2001 at the age of 75.
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