A legendary figure — not only in Greenwood County history but in the history of the United States — was posthumously inducted into the Greenwood County Hall of Fame on Thursday.
“He never sought this kind of recognition or honor,” the Rev. Dwight Powell, great-nephew of Benjamin E. Mays, said of his great-uncle. “It fell on us to recognize who he was and what he was trying to do for us, for the county and for the nation.”
Powell said Mays would be honored and humbled to be inducted if he were still living.
Mays, born in Epworth more than 125 years ago, had a passion for education. He graduated from S.C. State College’s high school department with honors in 1916 and graduated from Bates College four years later. He attended the University of Chicago in 1925 where he received a Master of Arts degree and — later in 1935 — a Doctor of Philosophy.
He was the dean of Howard University’s School of Religion where he participated in three European conferences of the World Council of Churches. During a 1937 world conference of the YMCA in India where Mays served as a delegate, he met with Mahatma Gandhi to discuss nonviolence as a path for social change.
Mays was selected in 1940 as the sixth president of Morehouse College, where he was entombed upon his death. During his time at Morehouse, he mentored the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and delivered the eulogy at King’s funeral.
A trusted advisor to many U.S. presidents, he was tasked with representing the U.S. — along with Vice President Lyndon Johnson — at the funeral of Pope John Paul XXIII in Rome.
Mays retired from Morehouse after serving as president for 27 years. He later spent 12 years as president of the Atlanta School Board before retiring three years before his death in 1984.
A key architect of the civil rights movement, the South Carolina General Assembly named the intersection near his birthplace — Mays Crossroads — in 1981. His birth home was moved to the campus of GLEAMNS where a historical preservation site was established in 2011. An expansion of that site — part of the 2016 Capital Project Sales Tax — has now been fully funded and is in the design phase.
Mays was also an accomplished writer and orator who authored more than eight books, 2,000 magazine articles and delivered more than 800 speeches.
In the quest to honor Mays, some in Greenwood took note of a 2018 column written by Index-Journal columnist and former staff writer Chris Trainor, who attended Thursday’s Hall of Fame celebration.
“I couldn’t think of a more deserving individual,” Trainor said. “It is long past due that Dr. Mays would be in the Greenwood County Hall of Fame.”
Loy Sartin said Mays was Greenwood County’s most distinguished resident.
“It’s a great feeling because I first nominated Dr. Mays in 2011 and he was not approved,” Sartin said. “I was so happy this time when I submitted the nomination that the committee you might say saw the light and the greatness of the individual.”
Chris Thomas, director of the Mays historic site, said Mays is deserving.
“I just think it is fantastic,” Thomas said. “I think it says a lot about our community growing in the theme of this event.
The Chamber chose the theme — Celebrating our Diversity in Greenwood — for its yearly meeting.
While Mays could not take part in the Hall of Fame induction, his family and friends came to honor his legacy as he was installed as one of Greenwood’s most revered figures.
“He is our most cherished son in Greenwood,” Trainor said. “I am just so thankful that the Greenwood Chamber saw fit to put him in the Hall of Fame.”