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The Life of Benjamin Elijah Mays

Benjamin Elijah Mays was born the youngest of eight children in the community of Epworth in
SE Greenwood County on August 1, 1894. A son of former slaves, Mays’ childhood played a key role in shaping the monumental figure that he would become. His earliest memory was of a  white mob that approached his family’s home  on horseback with guns drawn, forcing his father to remove his hat and bow before them repeatedly. The mob was associated with the Phoenix Riot which began in Greenwood on November 8, 1898. The atmosphere of hate,  lynching, violence and forced segregation made a lasting impression on Mays, and his child-hood 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. He developed an insatiable desire to get an education.

After attending the Brick house School in Epworth and two years at the Baptist-sponsored school in McCormick, Mays left Epworth to attend the High School Department at SC State College in Orangeburg, SC. He graduated as Class Valedictorian at the age of 22 in 1916. After a year at the African-American College of Richmond Union university in Virginia, he realized his dream of competing with Northern whites and enrolled at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. The Bates experience was liberating for Mays. Here he developed his first white friends and was treated with respect. He was captain of the debate team and played on the football team. He was named an honor student his sophomore year and graduated with honors in 1920.

Shortly after graduating from Bates, he married Ellen Harvin whom he had met at State College during high school. Mays accepted a position at Morehouse College in Atlanta to teach higher math in 1920 {Mays completed his Masters Degree in 1925 at the University of Chicago.} and to pastor Shiloh Baptist Church. His wife died in 1923 following an operation in an Atlanta hospital. In 1925, Mays taught English at SC State College and met his second wife there, Sadie Mays. They married in 1926 and moved to Tampa to serve with the Tampa Urban League. In 1928 Mays served as National Student Secretary of the YMCA in Atlanta he took leave to conduct a national study of African-American churches from 1928 to 1930. In 1933, he wrote his first book was published, The Negro's Church. From 1934 to 1940,  Mays served as Dean of Religion at Howard University in Washington, D.C. In 1935, Mays completed his work and  earned a Doctor of Philosophy in Religion from the University of Chicago.

It was as President of Morehouse College that Mays achieved his widest scope of influence in civil rights and education. Mays became president of Morehouse in 1940 when the college was at its lowest point since its founding in 1867. The Great Depression had taken its toll, and when the US entered WW II in 1941, the college lost over half of its students to the war. In addition to low student enrollment, the college was suffering from 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. In 1944, because of the early admissions program established by Mays, Martin Luther King was admitted to the college at age 15 as were other gifted high school eleventh graders.
The legendary President of Morehouse College influenced the lives of thousands of students over his long 27 year tenure. Perhaps the most significant relationship that he developed was with Martin Luther King Jr. Mays became both a spiritual and emotional mentor to King, and Dr. King admitted that he was led to the ministry because of the influence of Dr. Mays especially during his famous Tuesday morning chapel sermons to the students. Dr. Mays became so close to Dr. King that later in life he referred to King “as a son.”
Dr. Mays was a great supporter of King’s leadership in the Civil Rights Movement and its policy of non-violence. Indeed, Dr. King was imbued with the non-violent approach by the teaching of Dr. Benjamin E. Mays who had discussed nonviolence with Mahatma Ghandi for 90 minutes during a world tour of the YMCA on December 31, 1936.

During Dr. Mays’ presidency of Morehouse College, he met hundreds of national and international leaders. He served as a trusted advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and later to President Carter. In 1950, Mays was appointed by President Truman to the Mid-Century White House Conference on Children and Youth. In 1963, President Kennedy appointed Dr. Mays and Vice President Johnson to represent the US at the funeral in Rome, Italy of Pope Paul 23rd. During Dr. Mays’ long tenure as President of Morehouse, he traveled, and spoke, and wrote extensively about the evils of segregation and lynching in the South. It was Mays’ famous sermon in Evanston, Illinois in 1954 at the 2nd Assembly of the world Council of Churches that internationalized the Civil Rights Movement.
After Dr. Mays retired from Morehouse College in 1967, he did not ‘retire.’ In 1969, he was elected to the Atlanta Board of Education, and three months later was elected by the board to serve as its first African-American board president. He served in this position from 1969 to 1981, just three years before his death in 1984. In every facet of Mays’ career, he excelled and was held in the highest regard as an educator and community leader. In recognition of 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, and was awarded 56 honorary doctorate degrees by US and foreign colleges and universities. In 1974, Dr. Mays was awarded an honorary doctorate degree by Lander University in his home town of Greenwood, SC.

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 to honor his life and great achievements. The event was attended by family and friends including Coretta Scott King and 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 on March 28, 1984, four months short of  his 90th birthday.
Even 26 years after his death, there is a resurgence of  interest in the life of Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, this giant and revered figure in American history. In January of 2010, he was the guest speaker’s topic of speech at the Martin Luther King celebrations at Bates College. In Aug 2010, Ambassador Andrew Young unveiled his fascinating documentary film on Dr. Mays’ life (Change  In the Wind), which focuses on his secret relationship with Gone With the Wind author, Margaret Mitchell. On September 15, 2010, ambassador Young conducted a leadership seminar about Dr. Mays  life at Morehouse College.

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 Site also provides visual testimony to the agricultural significance of the tenant farming system and its 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 often 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 preservation. It is important that we work to preserve this important part of African-American history.

“The birthplace of Dr. Benjamin E. Mays is one of  the most significant sites associated with the African - American community in South Carolina. Too often, places associated with African-American culture and history are overlooked and, as a result, a majority of them have been lost over time. The rehabilitation  of the Mays' birthplace will be a benchmark for the preservation of African-American sites across the State.”

- The Honorable James E. Clyburn, US Congress