Died: March 28, 1984
Background/significance: The story of Benjamin Elijah Mays begins like that of so many of the early leaders of the civil rights movement. He was born to former slaves in the rural South, and through education he worked his way to leadership roles.
Mays began his long education journey at the Brickhouse School in the small community of Epworth, where his family lived. He spent two years at the Baptist-sponsored school in nearby McCormick, and then went to attend the high school at South Carolina State College, where he graduated in 1916.
He went on to the African-American Richmond Union University in Virginia before being accepted into the integrated Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. It was here Mays made his first white friends and was on the debate and football teams. He graduated from Bates with honors in 1920 and went to Morehouse College in Atlanta to teach math.
After earning his master’s degree from the University of Chicago in 1925, he came back to South Carolina and taught English at SC State. In 1928, Mays began a two-year national study of black churches in America. His book, “The Negro’s Church,” was published in 1933.
The next year, he was named dean of religion at Howard University in Washington, DC, and completed his Ph.D. in religion from the University of Chicago in 1935.
In 1940, he became president of then-struggling Morehouse College, and he worked to increase faculty with doctorates to 50 percent as well as enrollment, which had been hurt by the Great Depression and the beginning of World War II. Mays’ early admission program landed a 15-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. as a student in 1944 along with other gifted high schoolers.
King would later say he was led to the ministry by Mays and his Tuesday morning chapel sermons at Morehouse. Mays was a mentor to King and the civil rights movement, particularly the policy of nonviolent civil disobedience, which Mays had learned in a 1936 visit with Mahatma Gandhi.
In 1950, President Truman appointed Mays to the Mid-Century White House Conference on Children and Youth. Throughout his 27 years at the helm of Morehouse, Mays became an adviser to several Democratic presidents, including Kennedy, Johnson and Carter. He traveled, spoke and wrote against segregation.
Mays retired from Morehouse College in 1967 but continued to work for education. In 1969, he was elected to the Atlanta Board of Education and became the board’s first African-American president. He served on the board until 1981.
Mays earned many awards and recognitions during his lifetime, including an honorary degree from Lander University in 1974 in his hometown of Greenwood. An intersection near the community where he grew up was renamed Mays Crossroads in his honor, and a stone monument was placed nearby to honor his life and great achievements. He was the second African-American to have his portrait hung in the South Carolina State House.
His friendship with “Gone with the Wind” author Margaret Mitchell, which led Mitchell and her heirs to make several donations to Morehouse College, was the subject of a 2010 documentary called “Change in the Wind.”
Mays died in 1984 just a few months shy of his 90th birthday.
South Carolina connection: Mays was born in Greenwood and spent his formative years in the state, finishing high school at South Carolina State College and returning to teach there years later.
Discover more: Benjamin Mays Historic Site is open by appointment. Mays’ childhood home is the centerpiece of the site, showing the hardships of tenant farming for families of all races. The home was moved from its original location to the historic site along with a barn-like structure that serves as a museum. Visitors will find a collection of Mays’ books, speeches and other writings and can even hear some of his speeches. The third building on the site is the one-room schoolhouse, where Mays’ educational journey began. The site is at 237 North Hospital St., Greenwood, 864.223.8434. www.mayshousemuseum.org
Historic site on Facebook: www.facebook.com/benjaminemays