LEST WE FORGET | Benjamin Elijah Mays, Virginia Union University

Born in a shack in Ninety Six, South Carolina on August 1, 1894, civil rights theorist, educator, Baptist preacher, Morehouse College president, and mentor to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., the Reverend Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays was schoolmaster to the civil rights movement, to paraphrase biographer Randal M. Jelks.

After spending a year at Virginia Union University, he attended and graduated from Bates College in Maine, before earning his master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Chicago, while working as a Pullman porter to make ends meet.

In 1934, Mays accepted the position of dean of the School of Religion at Howard University in Washington, D.C. during which time he traveled to India, where, at the urging of Howard Thurman, a fellow professor at Howard, he spoke at some length with Mahatma Gandhi.

In 1940, Mays became the president of Morehouse College where he became inextricable with “The Morehouse Mystique” created by his predecessor Dr. John Hope. Known as a “Maker of Men,” he was an inspiration to a cadre of future modern movement activists—the most famous being Martin Luther King Jr. The two developed a close relationship that continued until King’s death in 1968; as his lifelong mentor, Mays delivered the eulogy for King.

Following his death in Atlanta on March 28, 1984, he was entombed on the campus of Morehouse College; his wife Sadie is entombed beside him.

Lest We Forget commemorates the life of notable HBCU figures in about 200 on the anniversary of their births or deaths.