Rising Above Challenges

Chris Thomas and Shunna Jeter discuss how the legacy of Dr. Benjamin Mays continues to inspire, educate and help us learn about ourselves.

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The Dr. Benjamin E. Mays

Historical Preservation Site commemorates the life of one America’s great educators and Civil Rights leaders, carrying on his ideals. Chris Thomas, director of the Mays site, and Shunna Jeter, CEO of GLEAMNS Human Resources Commission, recently sat down to talk about the role that both organizations play in continuing Dr. Mays’s work in Greenwood County and beyond.

"It is not 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.”—Dr. Benjamin E. Mays

A place to grow and learn, the site includes the birth home of Dr. Mays, moved here and restored, an interpretive museum, and the Burns Spring School. Although not the actual school Dr. Mays attended, it is a replica and one of four structures built by Dr. Mays's childhood pastor, Reverend James Foster Marshall. The site is expanding to accommodate more visitors and school groups and will soon have a new auditorium that seats 160 people. The new space will provide more opportunities for visiting scholars and larger events where more people can experience Dr. Mays’ inspiring story.

“The Mays site really sits on hallowed ground here in Greenwood County,” Shunna says, on the site where the former Black high school and hospital used to be.

“I'm excited about the opportunity to serve here and to grow this site, to share his life and his legacy because he truly impacted America and the world,” says Chris Thomas, whose family is from the same Epworth community that Dr. Mays was from. 

“Dr. Mays left a lasting impact upon my family. My great-grandfather was very impressed that Mays made the decision not to come back to Greenwood,” but to finish his education instead. That choice inspired the Thomas family members to do the same.

“When my son graduated from college a couple years ago, I told him that he was now a fourth-generation, African American male college graduate. I think that Mays had that kind of influence even on my own family.”

The powerful story of Mays’ determination to get an education is an inspirational fit for GLEAMNS as well. “We are here to serve families who live in poverty,” Shunna says, “and we know that education is a poverty breaker, that it helps to build that ladder to self sufficiency. 

GLEAMNS, which is an acronym for Greenwood, Laurens, Edgefield, Abbeville, McCormick, Newberry and Saluda counties, provides services to help low-income families become self-sufficient. Their initiatives include educational and student enrichment programs as well as workforce development. 

GLEAMNS is one of 1000 community action agencies born out of president Lyndon B. Johnson's war on poverty. “Our goal is to eliminate the paradox of poverty in the mix of plenty, Shunna says. “The Benjamin Mays site fits in so nicely with the mission and the responsibilities of GLEAMNS. This site is a visual representation of what hard work, determination and dedication can mean for every family, including those seeking services from GLEAMNS.”

Fiercely Motivated to Learn

Dr. Mays was born on a tenant farm to almost entirely illiterate parents. His father could read a bit, but could not write, and wanted Mays to get just enough education to run the farm. Although his mother encouraged him, “Dr. May's father was one of his greatest obstacles, actually,” Chris says. “When he has this desire to get all this education, he and his father have some very serious confrontations that ultimately led to a parting of ways to some degree when Mays was at high school and decided not to come back and work on the farm.” 

“The nadir of race relations starts about 1890,” Chris says, “and depending on which historian you ask, it usually ends by 1930. It was a period that was marked by very, very harsh racial violence in this country. 

“He was just four years of age, on the porch of the house that we're sitting on now, when he experienced his first racial mob, on their way to the Phoenix community, to lynch Negros. This mob sees him on the porch and his father in the front yard of their house. They stopped and terrorized his father in front of his family and made him get on his knees and beg for his life in front of his family."

“Mays very early on was sort of baptized into the awful period that he was born into. Ironically, they may have created one of the most fierce fighters against Southern segregation and racism, bigotry and violence."

“Dr. Mays rose out of those conditions largely because he was motivated to prove that he was as mentally capable as any man. He grew up at a time where there was a doctrine of Black inferiority here in the South."

“That theme drove Mays throughout his entire life to pursue education, to value education, to make his mark, primarily through his 27 years as the president of Morehouse College.”

But getting the education he so desperately desired was not easy. When Mays left for high school, he was almost 18. Placement tests declared him ready only for the eighth grade. “A lot of people would've given up and just come back to the farm,” Chris says. “It's incredible to me that a man that was so far behind academically mustered up the determination to not just stay there, but to go for five years and ultimately graduate valedictorian of his class.

“That should be an inspiration to anyone born into poverty that may find themselves behind academically, for whatever reason…He didn't believe that your environment was the greatest determinant of your outcome in life. He thought that it was in the individual, it was not in their environment.” The people of his community, who had so few opportunities, continued to inspire him.

The Talented Tenth

Ultimately, Mays put together both the intellectual structure that became the Civil Rights Movement—and became a leading example. The mentor who guided Martin Luther King Jr. and other giants of the Civil Rights movement, he also advised three US Presidents (Kenndey, Johnson and Carter) as well as world leaders.

When Mays earned his PhD in 1935, there were fewer than 50 African American men in the entire country that had that level of education. 

“He was the exception, not the rule” Chris clarifies. “Most African Americans, at that time, just acquiesced to the system. The extraordinary courage that Mays exhibited, even as a child, from walking in the front door of the plantation his parents were born on, to going onto a dining car that was supposed to be segregated and sitting down and ordering food. These were just sort of bold moves.”

At Morehouse, Dr. Mays inspired students with the idea that Morehouse men could be Renaissance men, leaders who could change society, “to have a sense of purpose for themselves that the society at large didn't necessarily have for them.” He introduced the concept of the “Five Wells” of the Morehouse man: well-read, well-spoken, well-traveled, well-dressed, and well-balanced.

Mays also championed the idea of the “Talented Tenth,” promoted by sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, referring to the tenth of Black men who, through education and involvement in social change, would become leaders of the Black community. 

Mays would ask his students, “Where is your 90? Where are the 90 that you uplifted, that you raised up through your life? He wanted them to have a commitment to social equity and social justice. He wanted those who had the opportunity to go and get an education and do better in life to uplift the entire race. These men went on to do just that.”

Carrying the Legacy Forward

“If you don't understand that history, the life of Mays doesn't make as much sense as it would,” Chris says. That understanding helps to preserve the legacy.

“The site serves to inspire. It serves to educate, it serves to teach about life and legacy about how you overcome challenges,” Shunna says. “And it certainly is a message that's dedicated to everyone.” 

The centerpiece of the site is a seven-foot statue of Dr. Mays, unveiled in 2017. A garden and cotton field give young people a hands-on opportunity to understand what Mays's childhood was like, planting and picking cotton from the age of six.

“He enjoyed life on the farm,” Chris says. “He just knew that he wanted something more out of life. And it gives young people an opportunity to come to experience Dr. Mays's childhood and allows us to tell his story, from his early life here in Greenwood, to going on and being an international leader.”

Several inspirational and educational programs are helping to mold a new generation. Models Academy, a partnership with Piedmont Technical College began eight years ago, now includes 450 young men, in about five or six counties, who have an opportunity to learn about Mays and his legacy. “We just had our first Model Leadership Conference, and my presentation was on Mays’s last chapel sermon at Morehouse in 1967: What I would like to see in a Morehouse man,” Chris says. “These young men were very moved by it. In fact, they stood throughout the whole 30 minutes of my presentation. It just shows how Mays can still continue to influence the lives of young men today. “

Other initiatives include the Mays Scholars Program and a relationship with Lander University through the Benjamin Mays Endowed Chair of history and philosophy, funded by Doug and Sally Kauffmann. That endowment creates a course on Mays and the evolution of civil rights in the United States each academic year. “I've had an opportunity twice [to teach] the class and I get to lecture for a week,” Chris says. “It's a great opportunity for us to interface with the university,” and bring interns to work at the Mays site each semester.

Forming the Future

“There were a lot of people here in Greenwood that contributed to the Mays site becoming what it is today,” Chris says. “We're just appreciative of the community, that the Mays site was able to come to be, and that people continue to have their arms wrapped around this site.”

“Things like this historical preservation site are not just so we learn about Dr. Mays or that time period, but it teaches us a whole lot about ourselves,” Shunna says. When her mother visited the site, “I learned a lot about her and about our family. As she was walking through the house, she was almost in tears, saying, ‘I was raised in a house that looks like this.’ She saw the wash pan. She saw the cotton field. She began to break down for me how it would pinch your fingers, and the little things that they would do to protect their hands. She says, ‘I gotta get my sister here. Because this is our heritage.’ 

“As with anything in history, if you don't learn it, you'll repeat it. So, we need to know those past stories so that we continue to grow in the future. We certainly welcome visitors, those young, those old, those in between. Learn a little bit about Dr. Mays and, hopefully, learn a little bit about yourself.”

Keeping the site growing and teaching is an ongoing challenge. “One of the tragedies of our site is that, while Mays made such a great contribution to American society, the Mays site has no continued source of funding,” Chris says, expressing hope that visitors will support the continuation of the legacy.

“That he came from here in Greenwood, it's an opportunity to experience a special part of Greenwood's history,” Chris reminds us.  “Albeit some of it is negative and racially charged, but it gives you an opportunity to understand the history of the area and to be appreciative.” 

“We encourage you to support the site by coming and visiting, telling the story, sharing what you learned at the site with other people in your community, so that they come and experience the site as well,” Shunna adds. “Of course, we're not gonna turn down any monetary donations or support as well, and you can do so by visiting our website or calling us at 864-223-8434. We welcome all communities’ support to ensure the continuation of the site.”

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