Black College News

Former Tuskegee President Leaves Legacy and Void

By Rosaland Tyler
Associate Editor
New Journal and Guide

In a time when the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities are struggling to reinvent themselves, consider how Tuskegee University President Dr. Benjamin F. Payton handled history’s ebbs and flows for almost 30 years. Funeral services were held Oct. 9, in the Tuskegee University Chapel for Dr. Benjamin F. Payton.

The fifth president of Tuskegee, he invited celebrities such as Tuskegee grad Lionel Richie to campus. He also met several U.S. Presidents during his tenure as president from 1981-2010. Payton welcomed President Ronald Reagan to the university’s 1987 commencement ceremonies, according to the LA Times. A decade later, Payton attended a White House ceremony and heard President Bill Clinton apologize to the elderly men who had unwittingly participated in the syphilis experiment at Tuskegee. 

“They were betrayed,” Clinton said during an emotional White House ceremony that was attended by five of the eight survivors who participated in the experiment that started in 1932 and was abandoned because of public outcry 40 years later. “Their lives were trampled upon,” Clinton looked out into the audience. “What was done cannot be undone, but we can end the silence. . .We can stop turning our heads away. We can look at you in the eyes and finally say on behalf of the American people: What the government did was shameful and I am sorry,” Clinton said, emphasizing the last three words, according to a White House news release.

Receiving a formal apology from the government for an experiment that exposed 399 men in rural Alabama to syphilis, killed 28 men, launched related complications in 100 men who died, and exposed about 40 of their spouses to syphilis, Payton left the ceremony at the White House and moved on. In the years to come, Payton added more accomplishments to his resume during his nearly 30-year stint as Tuskegee’s president. During Payton’s tenure, he was present when Clinton issued a national apology, pledged a $200,000 grant to build a Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care, and created fellowships in bioethics for minority students. 

The year he retired, Payton welcomed the 2009 United Negro College Fund’s semi-annual meeting to campus. Of Payton, who chaired the member president’s group for the UNCF, an organization that was launched at Tuskegee University on April 25, 1944,  the UNCF said in a recent statement, “Payton’s death has left a void.”  But Payton had a long list of accomplishments before he became Tuskegee’s fifth president. At age 38, he resigned in 1967, as executive director of the National Council of Churches’ Commission on Religion and Race, according to news reports. In 1962, he became the 10th president of Benedict College and served until 1972. He became a program officer for the Ford Foundation in New York before he was elected to serve as Tuskegee’s fifth president from 1981-2010.

A decade after he assumed Tuskegee’s presidency, Payton in 1991 announced a nearly 10-year, $150 million fundraising drive for Tuskegee.”We know it’s not going to be easy,” Payton told The New York Times. “It’s a monumental challenge for us, but we can’t wait for the recession to end to attack the needs we have.” Payton said the funds would be used for campus buildings, equipment, endowments for faculty chairs and research, student scholarships and general operating expenses.

Four years after Payton announced Tuskegee’s $150 million fundraising drive, Tuskegee in 1995 had an endowment of $42.534,000 million, ranking fifth among eight Historically Black Universities and Colleges, according to news reports. In 1996, Ford Motor Co. donated $1.5 million to Tuskegee for a computer learning center. From 1991-2002, Tuskegee renovated and upgraded its campus, adding a Pepsi-Cola scoreboard and 600 new seats to its stadium in 1991, a weight and training facility in 2001, and a sprinkler system in its stadium in 2002, according to news reports.

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