GREENWOOD S.C. — A museum dedicated to the life of Benjamin E. Mays, an educator who was an early inspiration to Martin Luther King Jr. and was often referred to as the father of the civil rights movement, opened last week.
Civil rights leader Andrew Young, a former Atlanta mayor and U.N. ambassador, spoke at the dedication of Mays’ childhood home in Greenwood’s Epworth community.
“It all started right over here,” Young said, pointing at Mays’ small childhood home. “It started here in a log cabin and a cotton patch. If it hadn’t been for Benjamin Mays, there probably wouldn’t have been a Martin Luther King. Nor an Andrew Young, nor a (former Atlanta mayor) Maynard Jackson. In fact, the legacy that came out of this little area is, forgive me, I don’t mean any heresy, but it is like Jesus coming out of the little town of Bethlehem.”
Young’s documentary on Mays’ friendship with Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell was scheduled to be shown at the Greenwood Community Theater, and the playing of two of Mays’ inspirational speeches also was planned.
Born in 1894, Mays left the Epworth community to attend the High School Department at South Carolina State College. After graduating there, he enrolled at a Black college in Virginia and then went on to the integrated Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.
He earned his master’s degree from the University of Chicago while he was teaching at Morehouse College in Atlanta and serving as a Baptist minister. He was named president of Morehouse College in 1940 and held that position for 27 years. Among the graduates of Morehouse during Mays’ tenure was Martin Luther King Jr., in 1948. King called Mays his intellectual father and credited Mays with leading him into the ministry.
In 1950, Mays was appointed by President Harry Truman to the Mid-Century White House Conference on Children and Youth. A speech that Mays gave in Evanston, Ill., in 1954 at the 2nd Assembly of the World Council of Churches, is largely credited with bringing international attention to racial issues in the segregated South and sparking the civil rights movement.
Mays retired from Morehouse College in 1967, but he didn’t quit working in education. Two years later, he was elected to the Atlanta Board of Education and later became that board’s first Black president. He served on the board until 1981. Mays died in 1984, just a few months shy of his 90th birthday.
The Benjamin E. Mays Historic Preservation Site has been in the works for several years, and curator Loy Sartin has spent the past year collecting and cataloging material and artifacts.
Mays’ childhood home was moved in 2004 from a pasture along U.S. Highway 178 in Greenwood County to the grounds of GLEAMNS Human Resources Commission Inc. The organization serves more than 9,000 low-income households in the Upper Savannah Planning District, including Greenwood, Laurens, Edgefield, Abbeville, McCormick, Newberry and Saluda counties.
“I just thought it was incredible, when you would pass by 178 you would see that sign that he was born there,” says Sartin. “For a long time I knew very little about Dr. Mays, basically just what was on that sign. But, when you start reading his autobiography and his writings, you see what a tremendous person he was and what an impact he had on this nation.”
The site includes the Mays home, a 19th-century one-room schoolhouse and a museum and interpretive center. The collection includes photographs, books, clothes and other personal effects.