Ball State University’s first Black tenured and full professor died in late June. But before he passed, Dr. Charles Payne shared his journey to start the University’s first multicultural education program.
Dr. Charles Payne taught through story, and the most powerful parables are his own: how did a Black Mississippi boy, stricken with polio, cross several graduation stages to become the first tenured and full Black professor at Ball State University?
Payne spent 41 years at the University, retiring as assistant provost for diversity and professor of secondary education. He spent the remainder of his life—before his passing in June—supporting youth, serving his church, and advocating for equity and inclusion across Indiana.
Some call him a legend. Payne chuckled at the notion. “They mean old,” he said shortly after his 80th birthday in April, when he talked with Alumni Magazine about his storied life.
He overcame from the outset
Dr. Payne grew up in Philadelphia, Miss., the youngest of five children. His father died in a car crash a few months before Payne’s birth, so his dad’s brother, Uncle Lawrence, offered to raise Payne and his brother. Uncle Lawrence and his wife were light skinned and educated, so the Payne boys had access to books and other advantages.
“A Southern accent is considered dumb, so a Black person with a Southern accent is doubly dumb,” Dr. Payne said with a laugh. “But we were privileged in many ways. My uncle said he never tried to pass for white because it would have meant that he couldn’t have us.”
Dr. Payne learned early how to survive the segregated South: step off the sidewalk when white people pass, and don’t react if they stomp on your feet. Never hold out your hand for change, pick it up from the counter. Write “N” on your schoolbooks, don’t talk to white girls, ever, and speak softly to the police.
Those lessons influenced his parenting: “My son, Greg, came home from the store without a receipt once, and I said to him, “Don’t you ever come home without a receipt again. If you’re accused of stealing, you’d have no proof.” Years later, Greg and his friends were stopped at the store. Greg had a receipt, so he was let go. The teen came straight home: “Thank you, Dad.”
Greg Payne is now a doctor—an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, to be exact. He also serves as a cardiologist for the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. Charles appreciated doctors. He was four when the county doctor said his fever and sore throat was tonsilitis, but a traveling salesman saw Payne, writhing on the porch in discomfort, and told his parents, “Your boy has polio.” They rushed Payne to a clinic supported by the March of Dimes and Shriners International.
“I will never forget that my parents didn’t have to pay for my care, which included six surgeries to reposition my knee and foot that had twisted 180-degrees, pointing straight back,” he said. “When I came to Muncie, I looked to get involved with those organizations, but I didn’t find any chapters. When I heard Kiwanis supported Riley Children’s Hospital, I signed up.” Dr. Payne was past president of the local Kiwanis chapter and was Lt. Governor of the Wapahani Division.
‘Hey professor,’ they’d tease
Kiwanis also supports area schools, and Dr. Payne loved learning. Told he shouldn’t walk to avoid injury, Payne spent his early life reading and thinking. Kids teased the scholar: “Hey professor,” they’d say, never knowing Payne would one day respond to that title with pride. He shuffled around on crutches, but when his parents were gone, his brother would kick the aids aside: “Walk Charley Ray, walk,” he’d say, challenging his brother to try.
“Neighbors told my parents, ‘Wow, it’s so great to see your boy walking.’ My folks thought they were crazy,” he said. “I finally confessed I could walk, and my parents were upset at first; but when the doctor was excited and encouraging, so were they.”
Payne moved from crutches to braces, but the supports still kept him a step behind his peers: “I didn’t make the sixth-grade basketball team, and I cried to my dad, ‘Why would God bless me with the ability to shoot and dribble but not run?’” Payne said. “He told me to focus on what I can do. I was walking when many others with polio couldn’t, and I rarely got mad after that moment.”
When you prove the world wrong at such a young age, Dr. Payne said, it changes you. He turned his anger into determination, trying out each year until he made the 10th-grade junior varsity team, “though the coach did tell me, ‘I’d better never see you trying to make a fast break,’ ” he laughed.
Dr. Payne didn’t mind focusing on school. Education was a core value of his family: “Even white people have to respect you when you are educated,” his mother always told him. Payne attended Black schools with encouraging, smart teachers, who turned outdated textbooks from white schools into effective tools.
Education as liberation
Dr. Payne graduated from Rust College in Holly Springs, Miss., with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1962. He wanted to be a medical doctor, or “anything other than an ‘er’—a teacher or a preacher—which were the only roles many people thought Black people could do.” Payne took a bus to the University of Memphis to take the MCAT. The Black cabbie, hesitant to drive through the segregated campus, dropped Payne off on the edge and he walked to the testing site.
Dr. Payne scored well, but the American Medical Association was threatening action against medical schools that accepted applicants from unaccredited colleges like Rust, he said. He was put on a waiting list.
“I began teaching high school chemistry in the Mississippi Delta, where I grew up. I love chemistry, and I enjoyed seeing the impact I had on students,” said Dr. Payne, who secured a National Science Foundation grant to earn a master’s in chemistry from Tuskegee Institute in 1965. That same year, he accepted a teaching position as Mississippi Valley State University, then he earned his doctorate in science education from the University of Virginia in 1972.
Dr. Payne discovered Ball State while looking at job placement ads.
“I was with a friend, and he said: ‘What do you keep looking at?’ I told him, and he started laughing, ‘Man, you don’t know nothing about multicultural education.’ I said, well, they don’t either, so we’re even. But I did know multicultural teacher education was an emerging field, and I wanted to be part of it.”
Ball State hired Dr. Payne as an assistant professor of Secondary Education and director of the Preparation of Teachers for Multi-Cultured Schools Program. In his nonthreatening way, Dr. Payne equipped student teachers with the knowledge and skills to effectively educate children of various backgrounds and life experiences.
Dr. Payne reiterates that people are alike more than they are different, but those differences are important. If you’re not careful, he added, they can fuel incorrect assumptions. Forever a scientist, Dr. Payne looked for data and questioned hunches.
“A teacher was frustrated because a girl brought a school library book back with a note from her mother to never send a library book home again,” Dr. Payne said. “The teacher thought the parents might not value education, but I talked with a Black teacher who knew the family. Come to find out, the girl was poor, and her mother simply didn’t want nice things in the house. She didn’t want to dirty or harm the book.”
Uniting voices, elevating diversity
That exploratory spirit led Dr. Payne to partner with Dr. Linh Littleford and other faculty to develop Ball State’s Diversity Research Symposium, which since 2019 has drawn people together to learn, share ideas, and network. Dr. Littleford recalls Dr. Payne’s encouragement and support during the symposium’s formation.
“Charles hosted a luncheon to ask several faculty and staff to share our work related to cultural diversity,” said Dr. Littleford, chair of the Department of Psychological Sciences. “I told Charles, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if someone organized something where everyone who was interested in diversity could gather to learn, interact, share ideas, and network?’ He smiled and told me it was a good idea, but I assumed he was being nice.”
Within a week, Dr. Payne called Dr. Littleford and said he wanted to pursue the idea and that she should be the one to organize it. At their first meeting, Dr. Littleford recalled a senior faculty saying, “I can’t even begin to tell you all the reasons why this conference is a terrible idea.” Dr. Payne told her to shake off the criticism.
“I will never know how many criticisms and barriers Charles had to overcome, and I doubt we will be able to truly measure the positive impact Charles has had on his students,” she said. “However, I do know that he taught me and others to take challenges and criticisms in strides, to persevere, and to make the path a bit easier for those who come after you. I also know that without Charles’ support and encouragement, the Diversity Research Symposium would not have happened.”
For nine years, Ball State, Indiana State, and Indiana University-Southeast have rotated hosting the annual symposium, which has welcomed more than 2,000 faculty, staff, community members, and students from all disciplines to learn how to infuse cultural diversity into their research, curricula, and professional development.
Dr. Melinda Messineo attended those research symposiums. The interim associate vice president for Inclusive Excellence at Ball State said Dr. Payne was gifted at “calling people in” rather than “calling people out.” In addition to their professional collaborations, Drs. Payne and Messineo worked closely to advance DEI in the community. They collaborated on the city’s first race relations survey 20 years ago, which the Martin Luther King Jr. Dream Team replicated in 2020. Dr. Payne, she said, was involved with both evaluations. He has walked alongside progress at Ball State and in Muncie for 50 years, she said.
“This can be discouraging work, and Charles knows we have a long way to go, but he doesn’t let people get lost in the fog of frustration,” said Dr. Messineo, also a professor of Sociology. “He urges us to celebrate our victories on this path, that is not a sprint but a marathon. The arc of society is bending toward greater justice, and his presence and stories at meetings often maintain our sense of hope and curiosity.”
WaTasha Barnes Griffin, executive director of the YWCA in Muncie, chairs the board of the MLK Jr. Dream Team, which was founded in 2003 to promote the ideologies of Dr. King through events, education, and dialogue. When Dr. Payne spoke, she said, you want to listen.
“He’s a walking history book that is a bridge from that past that connects us to the future and toward a more equitable future,” said Ms. Barnes Griffin. “He is determined and lets nothing stop him from serving and using his talents to advance the work of community and social issues.”
Community organizer and activist Mary Dollison, ’64, picked up on Dr. Payne’s influence and wisdom early in his tenure at Ball State. In the Summer of 1987, she and Raushanah Shabazz taught neighborhood kids in Ms. Dollison’s living room. That effort evolved into the Muncie nonprofit Motivate our Minds. Ms. Dollison met Dr. Payne over the phone.
“I heard about him, so I called him up. I was ready for him to say he was too busy to help guide our organization, but he didn’t mince words, ‘Mary, I’d love to help you.’ He has done so much academically for our kids and provided us with tremendous leadership. We’ve called on him so many times, and he always answers.”
Ms. Dollison said Dr. Payne encouraged Black people in the community to be seen. He urged them to engage with the greater Muncie community through Kiwanis, city boards and more. The Black community has built lasting associations throughout the community because of Dr. Payne’s support and connections, she added.
“I went to Ball State in the ’60s when African Americans had a little house on the edge of campus. When Dr. Payne arrived, he seemed to encourage African American students to be seen and involved across campus,” Ms. Dollison said. “He encouraged me and other community-minded folks to put ourselves out there, and he helped Motivate our Minds start K-Kids, which exposes kids to service. He wanted our kids to integrate young and in positive ways.”
Dr. Payne also brought white people into predominantly Black spaces. Lauren Bishop-Weidner, who taught English at Ball State for 15 years, invited Dr. Payne to speak with her class about Black churches as a touchstone for culture and activism. Dr. Payne invited her class to see for themselves, and Bishop-Weidner offered extra credit for students who joined her family that Sunday at the Bethel AME Church in Muncie.
“They welcomed us to worship with them, recognized us during the service, and treated us to a carry-in dinner afterward. It was a deeply Christian outreach to my students, and it has stuck with many of them and my own children.”
Dr. Payne was invested in church. He served as Bethel AME’s treasurer for about 20 years.
A member of the pastoral staff at Bethel, Rev. Dr. Maria Williams-Hawkins, reflected on those unseen contributions: “His illness increased his ability to feel other people’s pain, and he has been a blessing to more people than he will ever know,” she said. “When the church created a scholarship for local children finishing high school or older adults headed for college, Charles got involved. If a student’s church scholarship offer was not large enough, he didn’t publicize it, he just found ways to meet the student’s need.”
Dr. Payne also met with students preparing for the GRE. “He encouraged students of color to avoid focusing on whether national tests were biased and reminded them that many students of color do pass the test,” Rev. Dr. Williams-Hawkins said. And when two Black fraternities at odds with each other planned to fight, Dr. Payne talked to them about the consequences of a physical encounter. They called off their plan.
Dr. Payne supported Williams-Hawkins during her doctoral work and named her the University’s first Outstanding Diversity Advocate, given in recognition of demonstrated excellence by a faculty member in championing and facilitating inclusive excellence.
Honoring Payne’s Legacy
Ball State’s Multicultural Center created the Dr. Charles Payne Olive Branch Award, given to a student who promotes diversity and cross-cultural sensitivity, who strives to transcend cultural and racial boundaries, and who best demonstrates tolerance and acceptance of diversity as expressed by the center’s mission.
Aric Fulton, ’21, received the award in April 2020 for his work to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion across campus. Mr. Fulton co-founded Ball State’s Student Anti-Racism and Intersectionality Advisory Council, mentored first-generation students, and informed creation of two courses focused on racial understanding and empowerment.
“I was humbled to receive an award in Dr. Payne’s name with knowledge of the work he and other Black men did to pave the way for me and my Ball State experience,” Mr. Fulton said. “Service, with a focus on racial equity and inclusion, are matters that I’ve had a passion for since I first stepped onto campus, and they continue to drive me in the work I do today as an educator.”
Growing up, Mr. Fulton didn’t know anyone with a college degree, but he latched onto “strong-minded, kind-hearted and resilient” people at Ball State who guided and encouraged him. In May, Mr. Fulton earned a master’s in Urban Education Policy from Brown University.
“There is a need for Black people in education—teachers, administrators, policymakers—and I feel it is my responsibility to fill that need, so people who come after me have a better experience,” Mr. Fulton added.
Dr. Payne loved hearing Mr. Fulton’s story and those of other young Black students who “have a dream and make a plan to get there,” he said. His favorite part: hearing that students find support and community at Ball State, which lists “inclusiveness” as an enduring value.
Dr. Charlene Alexander is among those working—across disciplines and offices—to build on the foundational work of Dr. Payne and his colleagues. As Ball State’s chief strategy officer, she oversees the Office of Inclusive Excellence, which facilitates surveys about campus culture and manages affinity groups and mentoring programs for students and faculty. The office also holds workshops and roundtables for faculty, staff, students, alumni, and Muncie residents.
“I am especially proud we have leadership at the University with a clear commitment to our enduring values and respect for equity, inclusion and diversity in people, ideas and opinions,” said Dr. Alexander, who previously served many roles at Ball State, including associate provost for Diversity. “Our Inclusive Excellence Plan ensures that we will focus on six fundamental goals related to recruitment; retention; rewards and recognition; inclusive excellence training development and curriculum; culture and climate of inclusion; and a continuous review of inclusive University policies, systems, and infrastructure.”
Dr. Alexander stressed the need for Ball State to welcome students from underrepresented populations, which collectively will be the majority by 2045, according to the Brookings Institution. Industry partners, she added, understand the benefits of diverse experiences and worldviews in the workplace.
Much of the support for underserved students now and in the future happens at the Multicultural Center, a 9,500 square foot facility located in the heart of campus on McKinley Avenue. Dr. Payne was at the ribbon cutting ceremony in August 2021, and he watched the old Multicultural Center House at 325 N. McKinley Ave. get demolished shortly after the move.
“It sends a message that people of color and diversity in all its forms is a central focus of an institution of higher learning, and everyone should go there, not just people of color,” Dr. Payne said. “The space helps all people feel welcome and supported. It’s an olive branch into campus.”
Former director Bobby Steele guided that outreach for roughly five years. The Center started the REACH (Retain, Engage, Aspire, Connect, Help) Peer Mentoring program in Fall 2016 to connect first-year students with upper-class mentors. In Spring 2020, the Multicultural and Counseling centers began a race and ethnicity support group called VOICES, and in Fall 2021, the Center opened the Lavender Door. It is a partnership with Housing and Residence Life to provide all Ball State students with free and discreet access to gender-affirming clothing.
“Our main goal is for students to see us as a resource, and a resource that listens to students. We regularly make updates and changes based on student feedback,” Mr. Steele said. “We keep the memories of Dr. Payne and others who made this and other efforts possible. Most recently, we worked with University Libraries to chronicle the history of the Multicultural Center.”
Capturing our history, his stories
The free online digital exhibit on the Multicultural Center features news articles, photos, videos, and more to tell the evolution of this storied facility. The exhibit pairs nicely with other efforts to document the history of the Black experience at Ball State, including the African American Alumni Oral Histories Collection, which provides online access to 42 interviews conducted with Black people who attended or worked at Ball State between 1950 and 2017. Dr. Payne is among those interviewed.
“That was a great experience, but one of the stories I didn’t tell was how I met my wife, June. When I asked for her number, she wrote, ‘June Payne,’ and I said, ‘What is this some kind of joke?’ I didn’t call her for a while because I thought she was messing with me. I got a mutual friend to get her to write down her signature so I could compare the writing. Then I called her.”
The couple was married 50 years. The secret? “Bad hearing,” Dr. Payne giggled, quickly following with lots of factors, including their love for learning. Dr. June Payne also worked at Ball State, for 32 years, retiring in 2015 as director of Counseling and Health Services. The Paynes raised two kids and have two grandchildren “all the way down in Birmingham” with their son Greg and his wife, Dr. Brittany Payne, also a physician. Their daughter, Lauren Payne Abram, MS ’07, died unexpectedly at the age of 39.
At times Charles was criticized for his mild manner, for not taking a firmer approach or focusing solely on supporting Black students. Greg said his father believed that light and love drive out darkness.
“He gave me the writings of both W.E.B. Dubois and Booker T. Washington, but my father definitely emulates Washington, who was also criticized as being subservient,” Greg said. “My father believes people are coachable, that they can change, and he gave me a reader by Washington (“Up From Slavery”) that he received in elementary school. I plan to give it to my kids one day. We must know our history to make true progress.”
For someone who “didn’t know a thing about multicultural education,” when he arrived at Ball State, Dr. Payne made quite a mark on the University and greater community.
“I tell my story and the stories of others,” Dr. Payne said, “because knowing stories is knowing history and knowing history is important. It matters.”