Memoirist, civil rights activist, college president. Mays was born on August 1, 1894, in rural South Carolina near Rambo in Edgefield County (now Epworth in Greenwood County). He was the youngest of eight children born to Hezekiah Mays and Louvenia Carter, former slaves turned tenant farmers. Growing up in the rural South at a time when African Americans were disfranchised by law, Mays experienced a climate of hate where lynchings and race riots were common. In fact, Mays’s first memory was the 1898 Phoenix Riot, in which his cousin was murdered by whites.
Early in life Mays developed an “insatiable desire” for education, but racial inequality and prejudice had severely handicapped his educational aspirations. Struggling against his limited schooling, his family’s poverty, and his father’s insistence that he remain on the farm, Mays enrolled at the high school of the racially segregated South Carolina State College. Four years later, in 1916, Mays graduated at the top of his class and became engaged to fellow student Ellen Harvin.
Mays looked to continue his education at a northern college. Rejected because of his race from his top choice, Holderness School in New Hampshire, Mays enrolled at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, where he graduated with honors in 1920. Following graduation, Mays briefly returned home to South Carolina to marry Harvin, who had been teaching home economics at Morris College in Sumter. The couple moved to Chicago, where Mays enrolled at the University of Chicago to study divinity. After three semesters at Chicago and as a result of a personal invitation from John Hope, president of Morehouse, Mays took a teaching position at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, where he taught algebra and mathematics from 1921 through 1924 and served for a year as acting dean. During his tenure at Morehouse, Mays, who was ordained in 1921, served as the pastor of the Shiloh Baptist Church, which allowed him to grow in his spiritual faith and deal with the loss of his wife Ellen, who died in 1923.
Following his wife’s death, Mays left Morehouse to continue his graduate work at the University of Chicago, where he earned an M.A. in 1925. Although he considered pursuing his doctorate, Mays instead returned to South Carolina State to teach English. There he met Sadie Gray, who became his second wife in 1926. After marrying, the couple moved to Florida to work with the National Urban League to improve the housing, employment opportunities, and health conditions of African Americans. A few years later, in 1928, expecting to be fired for challenging segregation, they resigned from their jobs and moved to Atlanta, where Benjamin took a position with the national Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and worked to integrate that organization in the North and the South. In 1930 Mays left the YMCA to conduct a study of black churches with fellow minister Joseph W. Nicholson. That study, which focused on 609 urban congregations and 185 rural congregations, was published in 1933 as The Negro’s Church. In 1931 Mays returned to the University of Chicago School of Religion to finish his Ph.D., which he received in 1935. In 1934, as Mays was completing his doctoral studies, he accepted appointment as dean of the School of Religion at Howard University in Washington, D.C. In this position Mays traveled overseas to visit world leaders, such as Mahatma Gandhi of India.
After six years at Howard, Mays accepted an offer in 1940 to become president of Morehouse College in Atlanta. For the next twenty-seven years Mays worked tirelessly at Morehouse, collecting $15 million in donations, overseeing the construction of eighteen buildings, and conducting well-attended Tuesday morning chapel talks with students. Mays unrelentingly preached engagement, responsibility, and stewardship to his Morehouse students. His inspiring leadership made Morehouse one of the most prestigious black universities in America, graduating a disproportionately high number of future Ph.D.s, college presidents, and community leaders. Several of his gifted students, including Julian Bond and Maynard Jackson, went on to become leading lights of the national civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, prompting one writer to describe Mays as “Schoolmaster of the Movement.” One student whom Mays particularly impressed was Martin Luther King, Jr., who often stayed late with Mays to discuss theology. King and Mays became lifelong friends. In 1968 Mays delivered the eulogy at King’s funeral.
In 1967 Mays retired as president of Morehouse College and took the position of chairman of the school board in Atlanta, where he worked to correct racial inequalities in the public school system. In 1970 Mays finished his autobiography, Born to Rebel, which has stood as an invaluable contribution to the study of American race relations. The life of Benjamin E. Mays has been consistently celebrated. During his lifetime, he was awarded forty-nine honorary degrees and inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame. He died on March 28, 1984, in Atlanta; he was posthumously inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors in 1997.
Bennett, Lerone, Jr. “Benjamin Elijah Mays: The Last of the Great Schoolmasters.” Ebony 33 (December 1977): 72–80.
Carter, Lawrence E., ed. Walking Integrity: Benjamin Elijah Mays, Mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1998.
Jones, Edward A. A Candle in the Dark: A History of Morehouse College. Valley Forge, Penn.: Judson, 1967.
Mays, Benjamin E. Born to Rebel: An Autobiography. 1971. Reprint, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987.
———. Papers. Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, Washington, D.C. Rovaris, Dereck J. Mays and Morehouse: How Benjamin E. Mays Developed Morehouse College, 1940–1967. Silver Spring, Md.: Beckham House, 1995.