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'It just feels right.' | How a Bennett Belle became the Peace Corps first woman and first Black director

In 1977, Bennett College's own Carolyn Payton made history as the very first female and Black Peace Corps director in the organization's history.

GREENSBORO, N.C. — On the campus of Bennett College, the Bennett Belles were hosts to the United States Peace Corps Wednesday for a discussion on gender equity and diversity in the world of service.

Yet, the established history between these two organizations is much deeper than meets the eye.

"This is a big day. It has a great history of connecting with the Peace Corps because the very first woman and the very first African-American, Director Payton, was a Bennett Belle," Bennett College President Suzanne Walsh said.

Carolyn Payton, a graduate of Bennett College back in 1945, served as the 8th director of the Peace Corps under President Jimmy Carter.

"Having the first woman and the first Black woman in particular, come from Bennett College I think is just an incredible opportunity to just to showcase the amazing things that women are able to do, generally, and Black women in particular," Walsh said.

In her short time as director, there was one thing, in particular, Payton fought hard for.

"When I think about Director Payton, I think about the work that she did to maintain Peace Corps independence as an agency. As an apolitical agency, that is really out there at the grassroots level and because of her we’re in this position today and I’m grateful for that every day," Current Peace Corps Director Carol Spahn said.

Thanks in part to her, President Jimmy Carter signed an executive order cementing the independency of the organization in 1979, a year after Payton stepped down.

One thing is for certain about the legacy of this Bennett Belle, her leadership is a shining example of the opportunities out there.

"Representation matters. It matters that people can see themselves as an opportunity and that provides hope. It provides a dream, and I think that having a woman and a having woman of color in that role, just says to the world, this is a place where all people belong and where you can be a leader," Spahn said.

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