Benjamin Elijah Mays and the University of Chicago

Exhibit Location: The Joseph Regenstein Library, Fourth Floor
Exhibit Dates: April 19 – July 31, 2016

Benjamin Elijah Mays

Benjamin Elijah Mays in his office at Morehouse College

“We should not boast or glorify in our wisdom because we cannot choose our parents and we cannot choose the places of birth. And whether we were born rich or poor, wise or foolish, it is largely by accident, and we had little choice in the matter.” Thus spoke Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays to an audience of 150 at Rockefeller Chapel on Sunday, December 5, 1971. In this sermon, “In What Shall We Glory?,” Mays offers his reading of Jeremiah 9:23-24 as an admonishment to turn away from glorifying in hierarchical divisions and, instead, commit oneself to kindness, justice and righteousness; not only in one’s daily existence, but played out in “our political, economic, national and international lives.”

Dr. Mays (1894-1984) was the most prominent and influential black intellectual of his time, who sought to produce Christian ministers and community leaders committed to public service, social justice, racial equality and intellectual excellence. He is best known as the mentor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Mays and King met in 1944 at the start of Mays’s 27-year service as President of Morehouse College and while King was still a teenager.

Benjamin Elijah Mays was born near Rambo (now Epworth), South Carolina in 1894 to

Hezekiah Mays and Louvenia Carter, tenant farmers who had been enslaved. He earned his Bachelor’s degree from Bates College in 1920. That same year, he was ordained a Baptist minister. Interested in pursuing graduate work in religion, Mays applied to Newton Theological Seminary but was denied admittance based on his race. In turn, he applied and was admitted to the University of Chicago, Divinity School. Mays earned his A.M (1925) and Ph.D. (1935) through the Divinity School. In his autobiography, Lord, The People Have Driven Me On, he describes his intellectual flourishing under the direction of “some of the world’s greatest scholars,” but also pervasive prejudice against blacks both at the University and in the city of Chicago.

Mays’s autobiography dedicated to Hanna Gray

A copy of Mays’s autobiography, Lord, The People Have Driven Me On, which he has dedicated to Hanna Gray, president of the University of Chicago, 1978-1993

This two-case exhibit displays materials from the University of Chicago Library’s collection by and about Benjamin Elijah Mays, with special attention to his relationship to the University. Items on display include facsimile reproductions of correspondence between Mays and members of the University administration from the archives of the Special Collections Research Center. A portrait of Dr. Mays, to honor his relationship to the Divinity School, will be unveiled on April 21, 2016, to be permanently displayed in the Common Room of Swift Hall. This exhibit is on display April 19 through July 31, 2016, in the 4th floor Reading Room of the Regenstein Library.

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