ARTS AND HUMANITIES: Greenwood welcomes our state’s third ALA Literary Landmark

September 28, 2018

Roughly 30 years ago, the American Library Association created a new division called “Literary Landmarks” with the purpose of recognizing places and, in some cases, objects associated with our country’s most distinguished authors.

As one might imagine, most of the ALA Literary Landmarks are the former residences of writers, such as Rowan Oak, the antebellum mansion that was the Oxford, Mississippi, home of William Faulkner. Some are library or museum artifacts such as Grip, the stuffed raven that once belonged to Charles Dickens, subsequently served as an inspiration to Edgar Allan Poe, and now resides in the permanent collection of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Our state came relatively late to this particular table. In 1999, the private book collection of poet and novelist James Dickey, now housed at the Cooper Library on the campus of USC in Columbia, was dedicated as an ALA Literary Landmark. It took almost two decades before South Carolina claimed its second, the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, which was dedicated just last fall.

Now, thanks to an ongoing commitment by the South Carolina State Library, the Friends of S.C. Libraries and the South Carolina Academy of Authors, there are plans to keep the ball rolling in the hope of establishing in our state at least one new ALA Literary Landmark each year.

Just last month, South Carolina claimed its third, the Benjamin E. Mays Historic Site in Greenwood. Originally located in a field near the rural community of Epworth, this former sharecropper’s cabin was moved to Hospital Road in Greenwood in 2004. After refurbishment, the building opened to the public on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Mays is undoubtedly best known as an educator and civil rights activist. As chronicled in his important autobiography titled “Born to Rebel,” Dr. Mays overcame the constraints of rural poverty and institutionalized segregation to become a college president – he shepherded Morehouse College for nearly 30 years, making it one of the leading institutions in the South – and the advisor to three U.S. presidents.

A fateful meeting with Mahatma Gandhi in 1939 convinced Mays of the importance of nonviolent means to effect social change; and when he became the “spiritual and intellectual mentor” to Martin Luther King Jr. from his student days at Morehouse to his death, this particular philosophy of “militant pacifism” became a major feature of the American civil rights movement during the 18 years of King’s leadership. Indeed, politician, diplomat and activist Andrew Young once said of Mays, “If there hadn’t been a Benjamin Mays, there would not have been a Martin Luther King Jr.”

The clouds loomed low but the rain held off during the outdoor ceremony that marked the Aug. 1 establishment of the Mays Site as an ALA Literary Landmark. Distinguished Southern historian Orville Vernon Burton was the main speaker. I was also part of the official program, offering a few words on behalf of the S.C. Academy of Authors, whose board I have chaired for nine years.

Before the ceremony, I toured the birthplace, which is furnished as it might have appeared at the turn of the 20th century – Mays was born in 1894. The four-room, unpainted structure accommodated a family of 10; his parents, both ex-slaves, raised eight children. His father envisioned his son’s future life in farming, but his mother encouraged his educational aspirations, which eventually led Mays to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and establish a life as a scholar and teacher.

Between the birthplace and the small museum, which contains along its walls an essential timeline of Mays’s accomplishments and houses a number of personal artifacts, including a traveling trunk and doctoral gown, is an impressive portrait statue. Depicting Mays striding forward in confidence, with a copy of the Bible tucked in the crook of his left arm, the life-sized sculpture by Jon Hair of St. Petersburg, Florida, was dedicated just last year. Hair, by the way, is on track to fashion the world’s largest college mascot sculpture in front of Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia: an 18-foot-tall USC gamecock.

For more information on the Benjamin E. Mays Historic Site, call 864-229-8833 or visit mayshousemuseum.org.

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