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Housing Benjamin Mays’ Legacy

Housing Benjamin Mays’ Legacy
South Carolina artist brings national attention to educator’s dilapidated house

The late Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays was one of the most influential educators in American history. He was the spiritual mentor for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and among the most prominent presidents of Morehouse College in Atlanta. He was the first to receive the U.S. Distinguished American Educator award during the Carter administration in the 1970s, and last year, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his distinguished career as an educator, civil rights leader and public theologian.
With all Mays’ accolades, there hasn’t been much written about his birthplace in a small rural community in South Carolina. But his birth home in Epworth, in Greenwood County, S.C., has become a historical landmark.
The four-room dilapidated shack alongside the roadway was thrust into the spotlight recently when retired South Carolina State University professor and artist Leo Twiggs featured it on an ornament for the White House Christmas tree.
First Lady Laura Bush wanted to decorate the giant 18-foot Christmas tree in the Blue Room with models of prominent houses around the country. Twiggs was among four South Carolina artists, (and the only African American), chosen by Gov. Jim Hodges to design an ornament depicting a house of their choice for the national Christmas tree. The first lady had specific guidelines for the ornaments: They had to be 6 ½ inches wide, 8 ounces and painted white.
It took Twiggs about a month to decide what house he would replicate. He knew he wanted to do the house of an African American, but deciding which house was difficult. Twiggs serves on the board of the Palmetto Trust of Historic Preservation in Columbia, S.C., which had an interest in trying to save the Mays home. That sparked his interest in using it as his model.
“My wife and I got in the car one day and drove to Greenwood County. We were on Highway 178 when I saw the historical marker placed there in 1995 recognizing the Mays birthplace. I parked the car and climbed over the fence. In the middle of a pasture was a dilapidated house filled with hay,” Twiggs says.
“It reminded me of grandmother’s house, and (the homes of) so many other African Americans,” Twiggs says. “Right away I started taking pictures.”
Twiggs says it was important to retain the house’s original state. As an artist, he also wanted to do more than just create a replica of the house, but to create an art form. He created the roof on the ornament with spot and oxidation. The house is weather-beaten and has never been painted. And he used a special solution to make the white paint required by the guidelines look like it was peeling. In all, it took Twiggs 100 hours to create the ornament.
“What I wanted to do was to have the house say something about the people and keep it in its dilapidated condition. I knew all the other houses would be big elegant antebellum houses,” Twiggs says.
Palmetto Trust and other groups have been working to protect the Mays home for 30 years. Until recently, however, their efforts were met with little success. No one could establish a relationship with the home’s owners to get them interested in selling. The Mays family worked as tenant farmers and never owned the house or the land. And although preservationists had tried land swaps, they were not successful, explains Chad Lennox, executive director for the Palmetto Trust.
Now preservationists are negotiating with the owner of the property to purchase the building. Once the house is in the trust’s possession, the next step will be to request appropriation funds from the South Carolina General Assembly to preserve it. The house has been on the state’s 11 “most endangered” lists several times, and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995.
“We consider this the most important African American site in South Carolina not protected,” says Lennox. “Dr. Mays himself was a vital part of our history,” Lennox says.
One stipulation of the purchase agreement is that the house be moved, says Twiggs, who thinks the ideal place to relocate the house would be S.C. State University, where Mays taught.
“I really did Mays’ house because of his connection to Orangeburg and S.C. State. He spoke at White Hall, which is no longer on campus, every Easter for 25 years. He wore gray hickory striped pants with a black coat,” Twiggs recalls. “He was the epitome of what we (students) felt we could be.”
The fragile condition, however, could prevent the house from being moved. Instead it might have to be dismantled and put back together, Twiggs says. “It’s going to be an extensive project. The building is in really bad shape.”
Although Twiggs says he doesn’t know what exact influence the model ornament had on the effort to get the house purchased and restored, it did bring national attention to the fact that the house was still there and that efforts to save it needed to continue.
Lennox agrees. “There was no one better to replicate the house than Dr. Twiggs. He’s got passion. It’s incredible to hear him talk about the house,” Lennox says.
Overall, Twiggs says, it is more than appropriate that a man of Mays’ character and influence be recognized and his home be preserved.
After all, he says, “the spirit of Bennie Mays is still there.”

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