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Carolyn Allen was born and raised in Austin, Texas. She attended Stephens College in Missouri for two years, and completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Texas. She lived in New Mexico and Colorado before completing graduate studies in sociology at Florida State University. She and her husband, Don, moved to Greensboro in the fall of 1962. She became involved with community activity in 1968 at the YWCA, and served as head of its Human Relations Committee. She was elected to the Greensboro City Council and 1989 was elected mayor of Greensboro in 1993, the first woman to hold this office. She was subsequently re-elected twice (in 1995 and 1997).