Old Mount Zion Baptist Church began under a brush arbor in 1861 — the same year the Civil War began. It was the home church of Benjamin Elijah Mays, noted civil rights leader from Greenwood County, born 33 years later.
The Epworth church, which celebrated 160 years earlier this year, was the host of the final event of a weekendlong celebration of the 10-year anniversary of the GLEAMNS Dr. Benjamin E. Mays Historical Preservation Site.
The message of the Sunday morning service was given by the Rev. Grady Butler, mentee of Mays who was jailed alongside Martin Luther King Jr.
Butler spoke to the congregation and visitors about steps that are ordered by God.
“You can’t step unless you leave a footprint,” he said.
A lifetime of legacy
The weekend of events began at Lander University on Nov. 5 with a panel of Mays scholars and biographers — Randal Jelks, John Roper and Orville Vernon Burton — talking about Mays’ life.
The three spoke about multiple facets of Mays’ life: his education, his work, his writings, his legacy and his humanity.
Mays was born to former slaves in the Epworth area in Greenwood County in 1894. The 1898 Phoenix Riot was a notable moment in his life, and he had early memories of an interaction between his father and a white mob.
The young Mays was eager for an education. He graduated from high school at S.C. State College, then went on to the African American college of Richmond Union University in Virginia, then Bates College in Maine and received a master’s degree from the University of Chicago. Then he began work as an educator and clergyman.
Christopher Thomas, director of the historic preservation site, said Mays’ extraordinary legacy is one people should understand.
“Not just his contributions, but also considering as he said in his own words, that he was born poor in the backwoods of South Carolina,” Thomas said. His level of education was almost inconceivable for people of Mays’ time, Thomas said.
“Even his father, who just had no idea that his son would ever do anything beyond being a tenant farmer. And Mays certainly exceeded his father’s expectations, even to the point that his dad apologizes to him in 1938 and says, ‘You know son, there’s no way I could have ever seen this,’” Thomas said.
Mays is perhaps known best as president of Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he met King and became a mentor to the young King.
Thomas mentioned Ambassador Andrew Young, who first said there would have been no King if not for Benjamin Mays.
During Friday’s event, Jelks, Roper and Burton spoke about key moments in Mays’ life, such as the Phoenix Riot and his work at Morehouse, which was financially troubled when he arrived.
Burton spoke about an event in Mays’ life that he said epitomizes what made Mays become “the greatest man to come out of South Carolina.”
Mays had an encounter with a white person “who more than insults him, perhaps had slapped him,” just because Mays was dressed nicely at the post office, Burton said. Mays later had an opportunity to humiliate this person and chose not to.
“It is the epitome of what made Mays, the greatness. He was a man, person, who understood the humanity of his oppressors,” Burton said. “It is not an easy thing to do.”
Roper spoke about Mays’ relationship with King, whom he eulogized after King’s assassination.
He mentioned the saying that in peacetime, sons bury fathers and in wartime, fathers bury sons.
“In a time that was not technically war during the particularly violent late 1960s, Dr. Mays had to bury his intellectual son, Dr. King,” Roper said.
He mentioned the shock to the civil rights movement at that time and said not only did Mays help organize the commemoration of King, he eulogized him.
“That speech he gave in the midst of the most awful grief and loss, above all it shows that thing in him that just absolutely overwhelms me,” Roper said.
“So much hope. So much hope, so much absolutely genuine idealism and so much joy in the midst of sorrow.”
Building on a legacy
Saturday morning was brisk during the celebration of the 10-year anniversary of the site, but the excitement was evident.
The GLEAMNS Dr. Benjamin E. Mays Historical Preservation Site on North Hospital Street is where Mays’ childhood home now sits along with a museum about Mays, a towering statue of him and an old schoolhouse.
Thomas said during Saturday’s celebration that although the event was to mark 10 years, it was actually 40 years ago that during the dedication of the Mays Crossroads, Mays went into his birth home and expressed a desire that it be saved.
“It was a long effort. It wasn’t moved here until 2004 because the family that owned it did not want to let it go,” Thomas said. Even so, the home was moved to the site in 2004. Thomas said he believes Mays would be pleased the house is where it is and his life and work are being celebrated. “Because truly, America is a better place because a man named Benjamin Elijah Mays was born here in Greenwood County to two parents who were ex-slaves and could almost not read or write.”
Much of Saturday’s event, as well as the weekend, was dedicated to honoring those who have extended Mays’ legacy.
One recognition was for the Dr. Benjamin E. Mays Endowed Chair at Lander University, established by a gift from the Rev. Doug and Sally Kauffmann. The Kauffmanns were inspired to create the professorship following a 2017 panel discussion about Mays.
Kevin Witherspoon, professor of history at Lander, was installed as the endowed chair Friday evening.
“It’s the most profound honor of my life and my career,” Witherspoon said of the appointment.
“I think it a deeply humbling thing to be associated with a position that’s named after someone like Benjamin Mays. I think it comes with it this profound sense of trying to live to his model and his image. I’ve said a couple of different times I can’t walk in his shoes, but I can try to walk in his footsteps and just be inspired by his methods and the way he carried himself,” he said.
“At the same time, there’s the sense that I can never really live up to those expectations.”
Witherspoon will teach the second Lander University class about Mays in the spring of 2022. The class was first taught in the spring 2021 semester.
“Almost every class session as we talked more and more about Mays and his life and the things that he had done … A, they were just amazed at everything that he accomplished and B, they were really kind of frustrated and upset that they had not been taught about him before,” Witherspoon said.
Thomas, the director of the site, was also honored Friday for an award he recently received, the Fresh Voices in the Humanities Award. Doug and Sally Kauffmann are the 2021 recipients of the Dr. Benjamin E. Mays Legacy Awards.
There were a handful of 10th anniversary legacy awards recipients, including Larry and Barbara Jackson. Larry Jackson was president of the university for 19 years. Barbara Jackson received the award Saturday.
“When we first came to Greenwood, to Lander, my husband went to visit the Index-Journal office, and editor (Ed) Chaffin said ‘Larry, what do you know about Benjamin Mays?’” Barbara recalled.
“And Larry said ‘Well, good academics know about Benjamin Mays and all of us who care about civil rights movement know about Benjamin Mays and honor him greatly.’”
Larry learned from Chaffin that Mays was from Greenwood County, Barbara said. Chaffin asked Larry, “What are we going to do about it?”
Larry spoke with trustees and at Larry’s inauguration, Mays was awarded an honorary doctorate degree.
Former site director Loy Sartin was also given the 10th anniversary award. Thomas called Sartin a “jewel and a treasure to the Mays site.”
“It has been an honor and a real privilege to be associated with the Benjamin Mays site,” Sartin said.
“My life has been enriched so much just by learning about Dr. Mays through his speeches, through the films and just being around this every day. It’s been so inspiring and what an individual Dr. Mays was, and we’re so blessed that he was from Greenwood County.”
Sartin presented an award to Sally Warner, Mays’ secretary. Sartin recalled contacting Warner and said the site couldn’t have stood up as quickly as it did without her. She provided many of the photographs and documents that are in the Mays museum.
Sartin also mentioned funds Warner provided for the statue of Mays, which spurred the fundraising along. “Not long after that, we wrote a nice letter to Hank and Billye Aaron and lo and behold one day I was opening up the museum about 8 o’clock and Sally called and said ‘Are you sitting down?’” Sartin recalled.
Her question was “How do you want Hank Aaron to make out the check for $50,000 to the site for the statue?”
“I loved Dr. Mays,” Warner said, adding she’s grateful for her name to even be mentioned with his. “What a wonderful experience it was to sit — I didn’t know it at the time — to be able to sit in the room with him every day and be in his presence and have the opportunity to see him as the great person that he was,” Warner said.
Warner also received the award on behalf of Hank and Billye Aaron.
Sartin also presented an award to Carrie Dumas, who traveled with Mays and contributed photographs and documents in the museum.
Others honored with 10th anniversary awards included Joseph Patton, Lawrence Carter, Randal Jelks, John Roper, Orville Vernon Burton, Zachery Williams, the late Rev. DeQuincy Hentz, state Rep. Anne Parks, the City of Greenwood and Greenwood County.
Jelks was Saturday’s keynote speaker.
As he walked to the podium, a train began going by. “I hear the train and I think that’s Dr. Mays because he was a Pullman porter,” Jelks said.
Jelks said Mays spent his life around working people in the fields, sharecroppers black and white both.
“All of these people who have to work every day and he knew he was privileged enough to get an education so that he could come back and say something and do something about their lives,” Jelks said.
“He had to deal with the sheer uneducation all around us. And we here have to deal with that today too.”
Jelks talked about how Mays was a global citizen of the world.
“He left Greenwood County on a train and he went around the world,” he said.
“We’re not here to preserve the legacy, we are here to build on the legacy and to continue to build so that it can serve this county, serve these people and serve the world.”
The weekend culminated with the service at Old Mount Zion Baptist Church, Mays’ home church.
The Rev. Grady Butler spoke about steps ordered by God and footsteps.
“My brothers and sisters, all of us are making steps and leaving footprints,” Butler said. “And we need to be aware, we need to be aware of the fact that somebody is going to take some kind of notice to your footprints.”