Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays was one of the greatest minority success stories of 20th century America. From his birth in a small town, through his tenure as president of Morehouse College, Dr. Mays was instrumental during the Civil Rights movement across the South. In Greenwood, South Carolina, visitors can explore his history and heritage at the Dr. Benjamin Mays Historic Site.
History of Dr. Benjamin Mays
In 1894, Benjamin Elijah Mays was born in Epworth, South Carolina. It’s okay if you don’t know where that is because it’s a tiny speck of a community about ten minutes outside Greenwood. He was the youngest of eight children, which already put him at an even further disadvantage. His parents had been born into slavery but were freed at the end of the Civil War.
One of Mays favorite books to read as a child was The Bible because his name, Benjamin, was mentioned many times. At the age of 16, Mays was enrolled in a Baptist school in Epworth. In 1916, after transferring to South Carolina State College in Orangeburg, he graduated as valedictorian. Early on, Mays showed a proficiency for mathematics and was often asked by teachers to lead sections of classes.
Mays didn’t stop with just a single degree. He obtained a master’s degree and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago between 1925-1935. After finishing those degrees, he was offered the position of dean of the School of Religion at Howard University.
But everything changed in 1940 when he was offered the position of president of Morehouse College. Mays would serve 27 years as the president of the historically black college and improve the university in leaps and bounds.
One of Mays’ most prominent students was Martin Luther King, Jr., a graduate from the class of 1948. He would often refer to Mays as his “spiritual mentor.” Five days after he was assassinated, Dr. Benjamin Mays delivered the eulogy at his funeral.
Dr. Benjamin Mays Historic Site
In 1966, a non-profit organization was formed under the authority of the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act. Today, the organization is called GLEAMNS Human Resources Commission, named for the South Carolina counties the organization supports: Greenwood, Laurens, Edgefield, Abbeville, McCormick, Newberry, and Saluda.
In 2011, GLEAMNS established the Dr. Benjamin Mays Historic Site beside their headquarters in Greenwood. The purpose of the site was to relocate Mays’ childhood home and schoolhouse, build a museum and library dedicated to his works, and educate visitors about the iconic Civil Rights pioneer.
Visitors can tour the one-room schoolhouse, Mays birthplace home, and museum during normal business hours. There is no admission fee.
237 North Hospital Street, Greenwood, SC | 864-223-8434 | www.mayshousemuseum.org/menus/dr-benjamin-e-mays-historic-preservation.html
Did You Know?
GLEAMNS Human Resources Commission is located inside the old Brewer Hospital and Brewer School. The school dates back to 1872, but the hospital was a result of segregation during the early 1900s. The school and hospital were black-only until desegregation finally swept through the South.
Mays Birthplace Home
In 2004, the South Carolina Palmetto Conservation Foundation purchased the tenant farmers home where Benjamin Mays was born and moved it to the current site. It was the first building of the Dr. Benjamin Mays Historic Site.
During business hours, the doors to the birthplace house are open and visitors are welcome to explore. As you walk through, keep in mind ten people lived in the small house when Mays was born.
Although the one-room schoolhouse is not the actual school Mays attended, it is nearly identical. The schoolhouse was purchased from a site just outside Greenwood and moved to become part of the growing Dr. Benjamin Mays Historic Site.
During business hours, visitors are allowed to peek inside the schoolhouse. The building is often used for field trips and is furnished with period school desks and chalkboards. There is even an old coal stove in the middle of the room!
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The Mays Museum is the latest addition to the Dr. Benjamin Mays Historic Site. The wonderfully rustic building, designed to match the style of the other buildings on the site, houses a modern museum inside.
The museum is almost overwhelming with information. Walls are covered in a comprehensive timeline of Mays life. Newspaper articles are on display inside glass cases. Personal items are on display in a small room, including a fascinating look at Mays’ 1920s steamer trunk!
The Mays Museum is a fantastic place to learn about the life and legacy of Dr. Benjamin Mays. The timeline puts everything into order and the historical photographs add details. By the time you leave, you will have an understanding of the impact this man made during a pivotal moment of racial growth in America.