How much do you know about our history? National history? State history? Local history? As a thirty something adult, I’ve quickly come to realize I don’t know as much as I thought I did. Sadly, what I learned in school either turned out to be the perception of the person who authored the text, based on biases that sought to make the oppressive class look good and undermine the struggles and grievances of the oppressed class, or it’s something I didn’t retain for one reason or another. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve actively tried to learn as much as I can.
One such piece of amazing knowledge I came across as something of a happy accident of sorts. I was all set to meet Senator Nina Turner at the Benjamin Mays Historic Site here in my hometown of Greenwood, South Carolina. Unfortunately, Ms. Turner was unable to be there. I was all set to leave when one of the site directors invited my friend and I to stay and watch a film about Dr. Mays that was finishing up.
That film led to a tour which led me to discover something phenomenal: Dr. Mays knew Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I just had to come back again and discover more about this interesting man and his life. On February 5th, I had the immense pleasure of doing exactly that.
Benjamin Elijah Mays was born August 1, 1894, in Ninety Six, South Carolina. His parents were ex slaves and sharecroppers. Benjamin knew early on that sharecropping was not his calling; he wanted to go to school. This was something his father wasn’t supportive of at all.
Thankfully, Benjamin’s mother and brother were supportive. His brother gave him money for school for a time. The rest of the time Benjamin earned his money cleaning outhouses and later working as a Pullman porter, or railway assistant.
Mays started his education at the Brick House School in Epworth. From there, he transferred to the High School Department at South Carolina State College in Orangeburg. He graduated in 1916, and was class valedictorian. While there he excelled in debate and mathematics, and won awards. His teachers advised him to attend the University of Chicago once he finished his undergraduate studies.
Mays’s undergraduate education began at Virginia Union University in Richmond, but he wasn’t happy there. He was pressured by family and teachers to attend, and he was wary of the violence Black people were facing. So, he applied to other universities in the North to not only get away from the violence, but to also have the opportunity to be challenged academically. However, he was unsuccessful in finding a school to enroll him. Only one of the schools he applied to admitted to him that they couldn’t admit him because he was Black. Dr. Mays, instead of being filled with strife, wrote them and thanked them for telling him the truth.
In 1917, Mays finally got his wish to attend a Northern school. Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, gave him a full financial aid and boarding after reviewing his academic background and hearing his story via letter. He beat the odds and excelled there despite doubts that he wouldn’t be able to handle the coursework. He graduated with his B.A. in 1920 with departmental honors.
1920 is also the year Mays married his first wife, Ellen. They first met while he was still in South Carolina, and they kept in touch through letters. Ellen died two years into their marriage. According to Born To Rebel: An Autobiography, she died from hemorrhaging after childbirth. Her baby passed away as well. This was a very tough time for Mays. He left his job at Morehouse College and his pastoring at Shiloh Baptist Church.
He did find love again. In 1925, while working as an English teacher at South Carolina State College, he met Sadie Gray, and they married in 1926. They remained together until her passing in 1969.
Mays did return to Morehouse College, and that’s where he first met a teenage Martin Luther King Jr. Martin would stay after Mays’s sermons in Morehouse Chapel, and would tell him about his ideas. Mays shaped Martin’s worldview, and Martin called him his ‘Spiritual Father.’ When Martin gave his “I Have A Dream” speech, Mays gave the benediction at the end of the program.
Mays and Martin promised each other that whoever outlived the other would give the eulogy at their funeral. Mays kept that promise, and gave what’s known as the “No Man Is Ahead of His Time” speech. The speech was well received, and in 2002, University Press of America hailed it “a masterpiece in twentieth century oratory.”
After Martin’s death, Mays discouraged rioting because of his death. He encouraged them instead to ‘turn their sorrow into hope for the future.’
Mays shaped the education of students in Georgia and South Carolina, shaped the philosophy of one of the most well loved civil rights leaders, and he shaped a fine legacy by being a rebel, and not letting racism and adversity stop him from doing what he wanted to do with his life. Mays’s story is proof that behind every great public figure is an even greater local hero who is just as important and notable as the public figure they helped get where they are.