Hidden History: The Legacy of Upstate native, Dr. Benjamin E. Mays

Civil rights icon, Dr. Benjamin E. Mays was born in Greenwood County.

GREENWOOD COUNTY, S.C. (WSPA) – Civil Rights Icon, Dr. Benjamin E. Mays was born in 1894 in the Epworth Community by ninety six in Greenwood County.

Mays parents were slaves on the land where they later lived in the house where Mays was born.

“He was born in the time where whites were going about the business of re-establishing white rule in the South through both acts of violence and legislative acts, through creating Jim Crow laws and creating segregation,” said Chris Thomas, the director of the GLEAMS Dr. Benjamin E. Mays Historic Preservation Site in Greenwood.

Thomas says some of Mays’ earliest memories were not pleasant.

“Dr. Mays on the porch of this home that we have here on this site was terrorized as a four-year-old by men who rode up on horseback and forced his father at gunpoint to get down on his knees and stand up three times and salute to them and say they wouldn’t be a problem to them,” Thomas said.

Thomas says this happened during the Phoenix Riots, one of the most violent events in Greenwood County history. He said in one week, nine African-Americans in the community were lynched and killed. It was an event that formed who Dr. Mays became.

“He didn’t believe God had made him inferior, so Dr. Mays was driven by this desire to go and prove his worth,” Thomas said.

Dr. Mays took his schooling very seriously and eventually received his Masters and PhD from the University of Chicago. He also started preaching at the age of nine at Old Mount Zion Baptist Church in Ninety Six.

“It’s just a tremendous story from someone who had an immense amount of tenacity and desire to get an education and be someone in life and accomplish something in life,” Thomas said.

Mays became the president of Morehouse College in Atlanta and held the title for 27 years. He started an early admission program, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in the first class in 1944.

“King comes to Morehouse with this desire to study sociology and be an attorney, but it was really under Dr. Mays…Him seeing Dr. Mays and finding sort of this intellectual,spiritual leader that made Dr. King think that he could do the things that he wanted to do in the ministry much as Mays was doing, and I think that’s his legacy,” Thomas said.

Mays had an impact on many young people throughout the Civil Rights Movement.

“They went on to make a lasting legacy and really change the course of American History through the mentorship of Dr. Mays,” Thomas said.

People who worked with him say they were drawn to him.

“He was always very stately, relaxed and wise,” said Dr. Lawrence Carter, the Dean of the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College. “He was from a different era.”

However, Mays never forgot the humble roots that he came from.

“He felt that he represented the aspirations of the people in the Phoenix community and Epworth area, and so, he decided to continue to push on even when obstacles came in his life,” Thomas said.

A life-size statue of Mays now sits on the Mays Historic Site. It’s the only life-size statue of a historical figure in Greenwood County.

“He represents the best in us and the best that we can strive to be,” Thomas said.

Dr. Mays said the eulogy at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s funeral.

He was also an adviser to presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Carter.

Mays died in 1984 and is buried on Morehouse’s campus in Atlanta.