Benjamin Elijah Mays was born in the town of Epworth , southeast of Greenwood , in August 1894. A son of former slaves, Mays’ childhood played a key role in shaping the man that he would become. His earliest memory is of a white mob that approached his family’s home on horseback, forcing his father to remove his hat and bow before them repeatedly. The mob was a group associated with the Phoenix Riots which began in Greenwood on 8 November 1898. This atmosphere of hate and segregation made a lasting impression on Mays and his childhood on his family’s tenant farm became the defining period of his life. It was then that he realized he wanted something better for his life and something better for the African American community.
Mays left Epworth to attend high school in Orangeburg at South Carolina State College. In 1916, he graduated as class valedictorian, choosing to continue his education at Bates College in Lewiston , Maine . It was his desire to attend college with white students rather than the all black education that he was sure to receive if he stayed in the south. At Bates, Mays was named an honor student his sophomore year and graduated with honors in 1920. He then continued to the University of Chicago where he received his Masters degree in 1925. While a professor at Howard University , Mays completed his education by gaining a Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Chicago in Religion.
The childhood home of Dr. Benjamin Mays is perhaps the most important site in South Carolina associated with the African American civil rights movement. It was as President of Morehouse that Mays achieved his widest scope of influence in civil rights and education. Mays became president in 1940, ushering the college through World War II, falling admissions, and under qualified professors. As president, Mays established a Phi Beta Kappa chapter, increased the number of faculty holding PhD’s to fifty percent, and increased enrollment.
He also had the opportunity to influence the lives of students attending college at Morehouse. Perhaps the most significant relationship that he developed was with Martin Luther King. Mays became both a spiritual and emotional mentor to King, who was led to the ministry by Mays and Professor of Religion George Kelsey. Dr. Mays was a great supporter of King’s activism and policy of non-violence, even though he encouraged him to become a professor at Morehouse and leave the public realm.
Mays served as president of Morehouse from 1940 to 1967. Despite his retirement at age 69, his activism did not slow. He served as advisor to Presidents Johnson and Carter, served on the Atlanta Board of Education for 9 years and was the first African American president to serve on the Board. Mays was also active in the Young Men’s Christian Association, member of the Advisory Council of the Peace Corps, and the National Commission for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.
In every facet of Mays’ career, he excelled and was held in the highest regard as an educator and community leader. As recognition for his influence in education and racial equality, Mays received more than 65 honors and awards from state, national, and international organizations and served as a member, representative, and official of more than 18 national and international organizations. He also delivered addresses to more than 250 colleges and universities in the United States .
In 1981, Mays returned to Epworth, his childhood home, to be honored by the local community. A nearby intersection was renamed Mays Crossroads in his honor and a stone monument was placed nearby in honor of his life and achievements. The event was attended by family and friends including Coretta Scott King and other dignitaries from the state. Mays had been honored the year before by becoming only the second African American to have his portrait hung in the South Carolina State House. Mays died in March 1984, several months shy of his 90th birthday.
Mays’ birthplace remains as stark physical evidence of his early life and is a reminder of the struggle that he experienced and the restrictions placed on him simply because of his race. No other building survives that is so closely associated with Mays’ life. The Mays house also provides visual testimony to the agricultural significance of the tenant farming system and is social and economic limitations of the many blacks as well as whites who labored in the period after Reconstruction. South Carolina ’s African American heritage has long been ignored by scholars and preservationists and as a result, historic buildings and sites associated with these leaders are being lost at an alarming rate. In order to halt the destruction of this part of our state’s history, immediate action needs to be taken to ensure their preservation. It is important that we work to preserve this important piece of African American history.
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Reference Mays House Museum. (2008) http://www.mayshousemuseum.org/about.htm