Office of Special Academic Programs

Dr. Benjamin E. Mays Biography

"The tragedy of life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach."— From Quotable Quotes by Benjamin Elijah Mays

Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays was born 1 August 1894, in Epworth SC. His parents were tenant farmers who had been born into slavery before the Civil War. Influenced by the writings of Booker T. Washington, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and Frederick Douglas, Mays graduated from high school in 1916 as valedictorian. He spent one year at Virginia Union College (Richmond VA) before transferring to Bates College (Lewiston ME), where he graduated with honors; at this time, he was also ordained a minister in the Baptist Church.

Mays taught at Morehouse College and was pastor of the Shiloh Baptist Church (1921-4); was executive secretary of the Tampa Florida Urban League (1926-8); national student secretary of the Young Men’s Christian Association (1928-30); and directed a study of African-American churches under the auspices of the Institute of Social and Religious Research (1930-2).

Mays received his doctorate at the University of Chicago (1935) and was dean of the School of Religion at Howard University (Washington DC; 1934-40). He served as president of Morehouse College (1940-67). During this time he acted as a mentor to student Martin Luther King, Jr. Mays served on the Atlanta Board of Education (1975-81). In 1968, Mays presented the eulogy at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Mays was married to Sadie Gray who died in 1969. Benjamin Mays died 28 March 1984.

The collection was assembled by Mr. Rex Barnett, producer and director for History on Video a documentary production company, during research for a program based on Benjamin E. Mays.

Scope and Content

The collection consists of portraits of Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, primarily at public events such as graduation ceremonies or committee meetings, and with other individuals or groups, including faculty members; most group photographs are identified by event only.


The collection is arranged in three folders in one box

Descriptive Inventory

Folder 1 — Dr. Benjamin E. Mays: individual portraits, primarily bust portraits

Folder 2 — Morehouse College ceremonies – commencement: group photographs, generally faculty or administrators posed in cap and gown, includes Benjamin E. Mays; Charles E. Merrill, Chairman, Board of Trustees, Morehouse College; Hugh M. Gloster, President, Morehouse College

Folder 3 — Morehouse events – miscellaneous: group photographs of college events, includes open house, receptions, committee meetings, awards dinners, etc., or Dr. Benjamin E. Mays pictured in discussion with groups or individuals, includes Shining Light Award ceremonies (July 1981) presented by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for significant civic contribution to the city; also William V. S. Tubman, President of Liberia, who received an honorary degree from Morehouse College (1961)

The Mellon fellowship comes out of a national scholarship program established to honor the distinguished Christian minister, African American educator, mentor, author, and former dean of the Howard University School of Religion and president of Morehouse College, Dr Benjamin Mays (1894-1984), who later served as advisor to Presidents Johnson and Carter and was the first African American to serve as president of the Atlanta Public Schools Board of Education.

Dr. Mays was fondly remembered by one of Morehouse's most distinguished graduates, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. '48, as his "spiritual mentor" and "intellectual father”, a theme that would be echoed by so many distinguished men and women throughout Dr. Mays’ life. Dr. Mays committed himself to expending and ensuing opportunities for students who, otherwise, because of their race or social class, would be denied access to higher education. He challenged and inspired students to excel in scholarship, and worked his entire life to make sure those African American men particularly, and women would have quality education at liberal arts colleges in the country. The Mellon Mays program was therefore established in honor of the monumental achievement of this great American, Dr. Mays, as a presentation and a reflection of his life’s work.

For a more comprehensive biography of Dr, Mays please visit The American National Biography at