GREENWOOD, South Carolina
Chris Thomas adjusted a stack of magazines on a table in front of the museum. Loy Sartin wiped down and dusted the oil lamps in the cabin. It was a great day for the Dr. Benjamin E. Mays Historic Preservation Site.
Less than an hour later, a busload of relatives and descendants of the legendary and influential civil rights theorist, moral philosopher and former president of Morehouse College pulled into the parking lot – the Mays family were visiting the site.
“It’s the first time they’ve come on tour,” Thomas said. “They’ve probably been here for every major event we’ve ever had at this venue. We had a very, very good turnout from the family.
Mays, born in the Epworth community of Greenwood County in 1894, was born to Louvenia and Hezekiah Mays after they were freed from slavery. Mays would go on to challenge ideas of white supremacy and African-American inferiority, pursuing graduate studies and earning a doctorate and becoming the sixth president of the historic Black Morehouse College, as well as the first dean of the school of religion in Howard University.
Beyond his personal accomplishments, Mays’ work and ethics have inspired civil rights leaders, and he was the personal mentor of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Mays visited India during the rights movement civics and brought with it the principles of nonviolent civil resistance. , which he transmitted to his disciples. Mays famously eulogized King after his assassination.
Much of that legacy is dedicated to the Benjamin E. Mays Historic Preservation Site at 229 N. Hospital St., where members of his family gathered from across the country to reconnect with their roots. Dozens of them, dressed in matching purple and gold reunion t-shirts, stepped out of their tour bus to learn about their family history.
“He was a moral influencer. In everything he did, he expressed to people a sense of morality, and for him, of course, that was Christian morality,” Thomas said. “I am honored to do this. I think Mays was definitely one of our great Americans.
Benjamin Mays Blocker was the first to arrive. Mays’ great-nephew, he said he would spend his summers visiting “Uncle Benny” in Morehouse, where Mays encouraged Blocker to pursue higher education. Blocker then attended Ohio State and then SC State before being drafted by the New Orleans Saints and going on to minister at several churches.
Now 76, Blocker was thrilled to have the chance to see his uncle’s legacy first hand.
It’s an opportunity to see my roots, on the one hand, to reconnect,” he said. “I believe in history, because when I look at what Dr Mays stood for, what my family stood for and how we managed to get this far with doctors and lawyers, it’s good to come together and celebrate that.
“He stood up for education, he stood up for social justice and we represent him. This is the legacy he left: his family. We are that legacy.
Marshalyn Yeargin-Allsopp is descended from “Mama Susie” – Mays’ older brother.
“She actually taught Uncle Benny to read, so he said Susie was the smartest person he knows,” Yeargin-Allsopp said. “Women at that time, of course, were not a priority in education.”
When Mays started first grade in a one-room school, he could already read and write, which put him well ahead of his classmates. Although he would struggle with family and social challenges to pursue higher education, Mays has made it his life’s mission to encourage others to become educated.
“He wanted everyone in the family to be as educated as possible, and he made it easy,” Yeargin-Allsopp said. “He helped people get into college and gave them advice.”
Even as a girl, she remembered picking up Mays at the train station when she visited South Carolina. After brief words with his mother, he would ask the children what their grades were – B’s were unacceptable. He asked them what they had read and had no interest in what comics they might have read, but wanted them to read “Time” magazine or the newspaper.
When Mays traveled to Nigeria to earn an honorary degree from a former Morehouse student who later headed a university there, he invited Yeargin-Allsopp. It was her first time on a train and the first time she had tasted honeydew melon. She said the experience of traveling abroad with him helped shape who she became.
In 1964, she was looking to transfer to a tougher college to pursue her medical education. Mays suggested Sweet Briar College, though it was unclear if they accepted black students.
She was told it was too late to be accepted, that admissions were closed, but Mays encouraged her to share her name with staff. It turned out that the college was looking for a student to help argue the legal case for the school’s desegregation; local governments maintained the school at its original charter, barring admission of black students.
She ended up being admitted, on a full scholarship, as the first African-American student — and eventual graduate — to Sweet Briar. She then made another first as Emory Medical School’s first black woman to graduate. She now works for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the area of developmental disabilities.
When Gina Hall-Boyd walked into the Mays Site Museum, she gasped. She looked around the room in a daze; Walls covered from floor to ceiling with the story of his great-great-uncle’s life. Nearby was the cabin Mays had grown up in; where his father would often try to convince him to come back and tend to the ground instead of continuing his education.
“I had no idea, first of all, that they had kept such a history of it all,” she said. “It’s not a cliché, but it was truly a huge honor. It’s so important that we continue to do this and pass it on to our children. When you walk into this house and see the struggle …it shows hope and continues to show progress.
His mother, Beatrice Hall, is 88 years old. She was lucky enough to meet Mays when she was very young, visiting an aunt. She’s from Pittsburgh, and while the outlines of Mays’ life were known to many in the family, the scope of her accomplishments was not. She knew little about Mays’ encounter with Gandhi, but upon hearing Thomas talk about his life, Hall was stunned.
“When it’s in your family, you just don’t think about the greatness of all the things they’ve done,” she said. “I guess because he was a member of our family, we just took him for granted. He was a brilliant man, he did a wonderful job with Dr. King and all the other civil rights leaders.
“You think, how can a man do so much in one lifetime? You’d think he wouldn’t have a spare moment to do anything else. When did man ever rest?