Film, poetry and photography are connecting, sharing the relationship between two ministers and civil rights leaders: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his mentor, Greenwood County native Benjamin Elijah Mays.
On view through March 20 in the Arts Center of Greenwood special exhibits gallery is “The Benjamin Mays Legacy Project.”
There’s a timeline of historic photographs and events, paired with a question and answer video posted to the Arts Center’s YouTube channel, created in partnership with the Dr. Benjamin E. Mays Historic Preservation Site and the Dr. Benjamin E. Mays Elementary School, both in Greenwood.
The youngest of eight children born to former slaves in what is now the Epworth community in Greenwood County, Mays went on to become an advocate for education and civil rights.
Mays, an ordained minister who advised three U.S. presidents, was the longtime president of Morehouse College, of which King was a graduate.
The historic preservation site, established by the GLEAMNS Human Resources Commission in 2011, is celebrating its 10th anniversary of honoring Mays’ life and accomplishments.
For the collaborative Arts Center video project, students at Mays Elementary School in Greenwood take part in a video question and answer session with the Rev. Chris Thomas, director of the Mays Historic Preservation Site.
“The viewer kind of becomes part of the conversation between the students and Chris Thomas about Dr. Benjamin E. Mays,” explained Sylvia Martin, Arts Center of Greenwood executive director. “One of the kids asked about how Dr. Mays traveled. That’s a simple question, but Chris Thomas folds into his answer the story of him traveling by train to go to school for the first time and about Mays traveling on Air Force One, when Mays was an adviser to President Johnson. And, he talks about his plane travel when he flies to India to interview Gandhi and Mays work with the YMCA. Chris takes this simple question and answers it with depth.”
Tiara Watson, principal of Mays Elementary School in Greenwood, said the recent renaming of the school for Mays has prompted learning about the school’s namesake.
“The Arts Center really wants to foster the connection to learning about King and Mays,” Watson said. “They’ve had a series of programs in previous years, but with COVID-19, it’s been a little difficult. Sylvia Martin had this idea for the video project. ... This Q-and-A with Mr. Thomas at the Benjamin E. Mays site is wonderful. Questions the children asked about Mays have made him really come to life more for us.”
Watson said the video project will be featured in a virtual parent-teacher organization meeting Feb. 23.
Martin said a key aspect of the collaboration is an effort for it to be multigenerational.
Greenwood Diversity bought copies of “Poetry for Young People: Langston Hughes” to present to students involved with this video interview project. Take-home art kits are available, too, for Arts Center visitors. They include copies of the book and step-by-step activities connecting with Black History Month.
“We’re trying to use Zoom and video projects and social media to bridge the gap to engage people in our events amid COVID-19,” Martin said. “The goal is to connect people with the exhibitions. We’re trying to think of new ways to connect people with high-quality art experiences.”
Mays Elementary fifth-graders who have worked on the project recently got a sneak peek of an early edit of the video, according to their teacher, Anne Marie Glawe, who instructs Gifted and Talented Accelerated Students.
“The students are doing wonderful things,” Glawe said. “Our Dr. Mays has done so many things. This video just kind of scratches the surface. For somebody who is new to this, it’s an excellent beginning to understand the connection between Dr. Mays and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“After all of this, students are going to be doing some things with online, virtual museums, to hear how other experts approach knowledge,” Glawe added.
In a typical academic year, Glawe normally arranges an all-day field trip for her students to visit the Benjamin E. Mays Historic Preservation Site, 229 N. Hospital St. in Greenwood, which includes his birth home, a museum and theater, the Burns Springs one-room schoolhouse and more.
With the novel coronavirus pandemic, Glawe arranged for a virtual field trip in December instead.
Glawe said fifth-grade curriculum includes the 20th century.
“Mays is connected to that century in so many different ways,” Glawe said. “He opened doors for minorities and women.”
“We split it up through the whole week,” Glawe said, speaking about the virtual field trip. “The Rev. Chris Thomas spent the first day in the Mays house. The second day was the farm and the outside. Wednesday was the schoolhouse. The last days, we spent two virtual days in the museum on site.”
That virtual field trip led to the video project with the Arts Center of Greenwood.
“One question leads to another question and that’s how we learn,” Glawe said. “Then, we research and we learn some more.”
In 2019, Glawe was the inaugural recipient of the Greenwood County Community Foundation’s Mays Legacy Award.
Glawe’s student Mason Jackson said one of the most interesting things he’s learned during the video project is that King considered Mays his “spiritual father.” Five days after King was assassinated in 1968, Mays delivered a eulogy for his former student.
Student James Parris said he thinks “it’s really cool” that Mays has been awarded some 56 honorary degrees.
Students made their own video clips where they posed questions to Thomas. Thomas was filmed by David B. Holloway.
“It’s great that the kids did their own video and got to ask questions of Chris Thomas,” Holloway said. “Having the kids do it themselves minimized risk and is more COVID-friendly, too. You realize Mays’ humble beginnings and what he accomplished.”
Russell Martin, husband of Arts Center’s Sylvia Martin, started editing video and piecing together the final product now on view.
Mays Elementary student Caitlyn Hackett said during the course of this project she has learned “words are very powerful.”
Site director Thomas said one of his favorite quotes attributed to Mays is: “It is not in your environment, it is you — the quality of your minds, the integrity of your souls, and the determination of your wills — that will decide your future and shape your lives.”
“All parties involved in this project have been excited about it,” Thomas said. “Dr. Mays’ life is layered. There’s a lot there, in a lot of complicated periods within American history. This group of kids are deep thinkers. They asked a lot of questions during our virtual field trip and for this video.”
In August 2020, a dedication ceremony celebrated the renaming of a Greenwood County School District 50 elementary school in Mays’ honor.
Thomas said the school renaming has no doubt prompted curious minds of all ages to learn more about Mays and his legacy.
“The most common question we get asked about (at the historic site) is about the relationship between Mays and Dr. King,” Thomas said. “When people know Mays was a mentor and eulogist of King, it makes people want to explore.”
When you go to public spaces and learn about history, it’s powerful, Thomas said.
“Having it in a public space like the historic site and the Arts Center, it gives you opportunity to touch it more,” Thomas said. “I hope this student project will also motivate parents to explore Dr. Mays’ life — his commitment to education, integration, a multi-racial society and his commitment to fairness and justice.”