Greenwood, South Carolina
Chris Thomas adjusts a stack of magazines on a table in front of the museum. Louis Sartain wiped and dusted the oil lamps in the cabin. It was a wonderful day for Dr. Benjamin E. Mays Historic Preservation Site.
Less than an hour later, a bus filled with relatives and grandchildren of the legendary and influential civil rights theorist, moral philosopher and former president of Morehouse College rolled into the parking lot—the Mays family was coming to tour the site.
“This is the first time they’ve actually come in for a tour,” Thomas said. “They’ve been here for probably every big event we’ve seen at this location. We’ve had a really good family involvement.”
Born in the Epworth community of Greenwood County in 1894, Lovinia and Hescia Mays were born after they were both freed from slavery. Mays continued to challenge ideas of white supremacy and the inferiority of African Americans, pursue higher education and obtain a doctorate and became the sixth president of the Historical Black Morehouse College, as well as the first dean of the School of Religion at Howard University.
Besides his personal accomplishments, Mays’ work and ethics have inspired civil rights leaders, and he was a personal mentor to Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.. Mays traveled to India during the Civil Rights Movement and brought back with him the principles of nonviolent civil resistance that he passed on to his disciples. Mays was famous for praising the king after his assassination.
Much of this legacy has been dedicated to the Benjamin E. Mays Historic Preservation Site at 229 North Hospital Street, where his family members from across the country have gathered to connect with their roots. Dozens of them, wearing matching purple and gold T-shirts, spilled off the tour bus to learn about their family history.
He was morally influential. In everything he did, he expressed to people a moral sense, and for him of course it was Christian morals,” said Thomas. “I am honored to do this. I think Mays was definitely one of the greatest Americans.”
Benjamin Mays Blocker was the first to arrive. Mays’ nephew, said he would spend the summer visiting “Uncle Penny” in Morehouse, where he encouraged Mays Blocker to pursue his higher education. Blocker went on to attend Ohio, and then SC State before being drafted by New Orleans Saints and moving to parish at several churches.
Now 76, Blocker was ecstatic for the opportunity to see his uncle’s legacy up close.
It’s a chance to see my roots, for one thing, to reconnect,” he said. “I believe in history, because when I look at what Dr. Mays stands for, what my family stands for and how we’ve been able to get this far with doctors and lawyers, it’s good to come together and celebrate that.”
“He championed education, he championed social justice and we represent that. This is the legacy he left: his family. We are that legacy.”
Marshalyn Yeargin-Allsopp is descended from “Mama Susie” – Lamis’ older brother.
“I taught Uncle Penny to read, so he stated that Susie was the smartest person he knew,” said Yärgen Allsup. “Women in those days, of course, had no priority in terms of education.”
When Mays started first grade at a one-room school, he could already read and write, putting him ahead of his classmates. Although he would battle the family and social challenges of pursuing a higher education, Mays made his life mission to encourage others to educate themselves.
“He wanted everyone in the family to be as educated as possible, and he facilitated that,” said Yärgen Allsup. “He helped people get into college and advised them.”
Even as a girl, she remembered going to pick up Mace at the train station when he visited South Carolina. After brief words with her mother, the children asked what their grades were – B grades were unacceptable. He was asking what they were reading, not interested in the picture books they might have read, but he wanted them to read Time or the newspaper.
When Maes traveled to Nigeria to receive an honorary degree from a former student at Morehouse who had gone on to lead a university there, he called Yergin Allsopp. It was my first time on a train, and the first time I 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 more difficult college in pursuit of medical school. Mays proposed Sweet Briar College, although it was not clear if they would accept black students.
She was told it was too late for her admission, and admission was closed, but Mays encouraged her to share his name with the staff. It turns out that the college was looking for a student to help bring the legal suit to desegregate the school; Local governments were maintaining the school according to their original charter, and barring black students from admission.
She ended up being accepted, on a full scholarship, as the first African American student – and eventually graduated – at Sweet Briar. She went on to serve as the first black woman to graduate from Emory Medical School. She now works for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on developmental disabilities.
When Gina Hall Boyd entered the museum at the Mays site, she was gasping for air. I looked around the room in a daze; The walls are plastered from floor to ceiling with the life story of her great uncle. Next door was the cabin in which Mays grew up. His father often tried to persuade him to go back and take care of the soil rather than pursue further education.
“I had no idea, first of all, that they kept such a historical record of all this,” she said. “I don’t want to be cliched, but this has been a really great honor. It’s so important that we keep doing that and pass it on to our children. When you walk into that house and you see the struggle… it shows hope, it keeps showing progress.”
Her mother, Beatrice Hall, is 88 years old. She had the opportunity to meet Miss when she was very young, she was visiting an aunt’s house. She’s from Pittsburgh, and while the broad strokes of Mays’ life were known to many in the family, so was the scope of his accomplishments. She knew little about Mays’ encounter with Gandhi, but when she heard Thomas talk about his life, Hall was stunned.
“When you’re in your family, you don’t think about the greatness of all the things they’ve done,” she said. “I think he was a member of our family, we took that for granted. He was a brilliant guy, and he did an amazing job with Dr. King and all the other civil rights leaders.”
“You think, how can one man do so much in one life? You thought he would never have free time to do anything else. When did the man rest?”
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