Benjamin Elijah Mays
(1894 – 1984)
Prepared by the Historical Monument Trail Selection Committee.
Born to former slaves in rural South Carolina less than thirty years after slavery ended, Benjamin E. Mays was a leader of the civil rights movement for African Americans throughout his long life. He and his wife, Sadie Gray Mays, lived in Tampa only a relatively short time — but a 1927 study that he did under the aegis of the National Urban League revealed the poverty that Tampa’s minorities endured even prior to the Great Depression. The report, and the Mays’ other challenges to racism, eventually resulted in reforms that benefited all Tampans. Benjamin Mays’ history also is intertwined with that of Riverwalk honoree Blanche Armwood, demonstrating the national network of early twentieth-century leaders for African Americans. A serious scholar with specialties in math, psychology, and religion, he earned a doctorate from the prestigious University of Chicago and ultimately held 34 honorary degrees – even though, as a child, his father did not want him to go to school.
Benjamin Elijah Mays, sometimes called Bennie, was born in rural Epworth, South Carolina, probably on August 1, 1894, although there is a discrepancy of a year between census records and those of the family. He was the eighth and youngest child of former slaves, Hezekiah Mays and Louvenia Carter Mays. They were sharecroppers, meaning that they shared a major portion of their farm income with the landowner. Sharecroppers often were cheated and neither of his parents was literate, but his older sister, Susie, taught Benjamin to read.
Their father resented any time away from farm work, but Benjamin attended Epworth’s Baptist school for blacks — which was not supported by public taxes, but instead by church donations. The school “year” was only sixteen weeks, and he had to endure local racism such as that from a white doctor who cursed him because he wore clean, neat clothes.
“Somehow,” he said in his autobiography, “I yearned for an education. Many a day I hitched my mule to a tree and went deep into the woods to pray, asking God to make it possible for me to get an education.” His father objected to this aspiration, but his mother supported young Benjamin. Finally, in his late teens, he was able to move to Orangeburg, South Carolina, where he enrolled at the high-school department of all-black South Carolina State College. It was not unusual in those days for colleges, especially rural and religious ones, to have an affiliated high school. He graduated at age 21 – as valedictorian.
Mays attended Virginia Union University, also a segregated school in Richmond, Virginia, for a year. Then, in 1917, he took the giant leap of going to Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, a virtually all-white, coeducational institution with a respected reputation. He was pleased with his choice, as he experienced very little discrimination in Maine, and said that for the first time in his life, he “felt free.” Chosen captain of the debate team, he also played football and graduated in 1920 with Phi Beta Kappa honors.
He married his “college sweetheart,” Ellen Harvin, soon after graduation, but unfortunately, she would die in 1923. His first job was at Morehouse College in Atlanta, an all-male, all-black institution. Mays taught math and was the first professor to introduce calculus to its curriculum. He also served as pastor to Shiloh Baptist Church in Atlanta, and soon his mathematical interests were outweighed by a desire to be a religious and civil rights leader. To further that, he went to the University of Chicago in summers and earned a master’s degree in 1925.
Returning to South Carolina State, he wed fellow professor Sadie Gray, who also had studied at the University of Chicago, in 1926 – and both were fired because the college did not allow married couples as professors. The result was that they came to Tampa, where the National Urban League was looking for an executive director to replace Blanche Armwood. She had founded the Tampa Urban League about five years earlier and vacated that position to accept appointment as the first black superintendent for Hillsborough County’s schools for blacks.
“Tampa was not the ‘city of our dreams,’” Mays said in his autobiography; “we went there because we had to have jobs.” They were surprised and pleased when a “reception in our honor…at St. Paul AME Church was packed to capacity.” Among those who attended were “the Mayor [Perry Wall] and other city officials, as well as newspaper editors. Negroes and whites were there,” but Mays quickly added, “The white people occupied a special section.”
“Not long after our arrival,” he continued, “Arthur Raper, of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation in Atlanta, and I…made a study of Negro life in Tampa. Arthur Raper, my first Southern white friend, was an admirable man. Working with him was a pleasure.” Mays was disconcerted, however, that the newspapers referred to the concluded report without mentioning his name, even though he was the one who presented it in a speech to “white people of Tampa.” He speculated that this may have been intended benignly, because editors thought the report would be more acceptable to whites if it were attributed solely to a white man. Over time, however, and probably because of the unfortunate nature of Mr. Raper’s surname, it has become known in Tampa history as “the Mays Report.”
Issued in 1927 as A Study of Negro Life in Tampa, it reported that Tampa’s black population in 1900 had been 4,383, but 27 years later, had exploded to 23,323. Many were newcomers from states to the north, where an insect called the boll weevil devastated cotton crops and left black people without work. They came to Tampa because of its relative lack of racism and the opportunity of employment in cigar factories. They lived in ghettos all over town, from Roberts City in West Tampa to Dobyville in Hyde Park to the larger community called “The Scrub,” which ranged from what now is Channelside to Ybor City.
The economic heart was Central Avenue near downtown, but recently developed College Hill was the only place where a black person could buy a lot to build a new house. The vast majority rented, at prices that were very high considering the squalid housing conditions. Virtually none had plumbing or electricity, which resulted in diseases spread by vermin attracted to outhouses, as well as fires caused by kerosene lamps and coal cooking stoves. Photographs show wooden shanties on the verge of collapse, as well as “back yards” that were only three feet away from the next house. Such overcrowding and a lack of health care meant that black women suffered a high rate of infant mortality: even though blacks were just 20% of Tampa’s population, they accounted for 47% of its stillborn babies.
Tampa’s economy collapsed into the Great Depression sooner than most of the nation, and the report would provide statistical evidence of housing and health needs when the Democratic New Deal began to be implemented in 1933. Mays did more than this report, however, and used the Urban League to undertake numerous causes. He especially felt that he had saved many black male teenagers from reform school – which could be a death sentence in those days — by organizing recreational activities. The report counted 42 black churches in Tampa, but no parks or playgrounds that allowed black users.
Although he was not a lawyer, Mays also took on a complex situation that involved a murder charge against a black woman who had unintentionally killed a white woman in a car accident. Attorney Cody Fowler, another Riverwalk honoree, argued the case successfully, and again, Mays was surprised at the relative lack of racism in Tampa: “Knowing as I did that Negroes seldom got justice in court, particularly in cases involving white persons, it was a revelation to me to find even one instance.”
Relationships with the police were not as good, but he did manage to get some of the worst racists removed from patrols in black neighborhoods. He personally suffered from the routine bias held by most policemen at the time: One example was when he and Arthur Raper were together in a car, and Tampa police stopped them because the white man was driving while the black man was in the passenger seat. After they switched positions so that it appeared Mays was chauffeuring Raper, they were allowed to drive on.
Mays also fought a public battle with the school board for students at Booker T. Washington High School who wanted to produce a play at the popular casino affiliated with the Tampa Bay Hotel. Sadie Mays, who was a social worker, fought for the right to use honorifics with her black clients: her white supervisor did not want to grant any African American the dignity of titles such as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” Because of these and other clashes with traditionalists of both races, the couple expected to be fired from their jobs and resigned to take better positions in Atlanta late in 1928.
They stayed there for the next six years, with Benjamin Mays working on race relations under the aegis of the YMCA; although still segregated, it probably was the era’s most racially liberal organization. Meanwhile, he continued to work on his doctorate of divinity at the University of Chicago, which would be awarded in 1935 – but in 1934, the couple moved from Atlanta to Howard University in Washington, DC. That was the greatest of higher-education institution for blacks, having been founded by Congress soon after the Civil War. It was named for Oliver O. Howard, a white military man and an advocate for African Americans. Ironically, General Howard had lived in Tampa in the late 1850s, when he fought Florida’s last war against the Seminoles from Fort Brooke.
At Howard University, Dr. Mays was dean of the School of Religious Studies. Only the second African American to hold this position, he made notable academic improvements. Being in Washington also enhanced his international reputation, and Mays would go on to represent the US in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Although he does not mention it in his autobiography, Dr. Mays’ tenure at Howard University also coincided with that of Blanche Armwood, who earned her 1937 law degree there.
He returned to Atlanta as president of Morehouse College in 1940, just as World War II meant that its all-male student body would be subject to the military draft. He solved this problem by recruiting teenagers not yet eligible for military duty, including a 14-year-old Martin Luther King. Dr. King later would credit Dr. Mays as an important influence in his life. As president of Morehouse, he also worked closely with the female presidents of Spelman College, where Blanche Armwood studied early in the century.
In addition to his other work, he wrote several books, mostly on race relations and Christianity. He ultimately received 34 honorary degrees, including from prestigious white universities. Dr. Mays lived to see successes in the modern civil rights movement; he was invited to the White House during the Kennedy administration and was a friend of fellow Georgian, President Jimmy Carter.
Sadie Mays died in 1969, and in the same year, Benjamin was elected to the Atlanta school board. A few months later, he became the first African American to preside over that body. Then age 75, he wrote: “There was only one really discordant note, and it came from Tampa, Florida, signed by one ‘Willie Malone,’ but gave no return address. It said, ‘Dear nigger: How does it feel to get elected to a job strictly on your color?’”
Dr. Benjamin E. Mays died at age 90 and was buried with his beloved wife Sadie on the Morehouse College campus.
Sources include Born to Rebel: An Autobiography, published posthumously by the University of Georgia in 1987, as well as Benjamin Elijah Mays: A Pictorial Life and Times by Carrie M. Dumas. Primary sources are available at USF Special Collections, including an interview with Mays conducted by the late Professor Jack Moore.