Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Housing Benjamin Mays' Legacy: South Carolina Artist Brings National Attention to Educator's Dilapidated House

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Housing Benjamin Mays' Legacy: South Carolina Artist Brings National Attention to Educator's Dilapidated House

Article excerpt

The late Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays was one of the most influential educators in American history. He was the spiritual mentor for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and among the most prominent presidents of Morehouse College in Atlanta. He was the first to receive the U.S. Distinguished American Educator award during the Carter administration in the 1970s, and last year, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his distinguished career as an educator, civil rights leader and public theologian.

With all Mays' accolades, there hasn't been much written about his birthplace in a small rural community in South Carolina. But his birth home in Epworth, in Greenwood County, S.C., has become a historical landmark.

The four-room dilapidated shack alongside the roadway was thrust into the spotlight recently when retired South Carolina State University professor and artist Leo Twiggs featured it on an ornament for the White House Christmas tree.

First Lady Laura Bush wanted to decorate the giant 18-foot Christmas tree in the Blue Room with models of prominent houses around the country. Twiggs was among four South Carolina artists chosen by Gov. Jim Hodges to design an ornament depicting a house of their choice for the national Christmas tree. The first lady had specific guidelines for the ornaments: They had to be 6 1/2 inches wide, 8 ounces and painted white.

It took Twiggs about a month to decide what house he would replicate. He knew he wanted to do the house of an African American, but deciding which house was difficult. Twiggs serves on the board of the Palmetto Trust of Historic Preservation in Columbia, S.C., which had an interest in trying to save the Mays home. That sparked his interest in using it as his model.

"My wife and I got in the car one day and drove to Greenwood County. We were on Highway 178 when I saw the historical marker placed there in 1995 recognizing the Mays birthplace. I parked the car and climbed over the fence. In the middle of a pasture was a dilapidated house filled with hay," Twiggs says.

"It reminded me of grandmother's house, and (the homes of) so many other African Americans," Twiggs says. "Right away I started taking pictures."

Twiggs says it was important to retain the house's original state. As an artist, he also wanted to do more than just create a replica of the house, but to create an art form. He created the roof on the ornament with spot and oxidation. The house is weather-beaten and has never been painted. And he used a special solution to make the white paint required by the guidelines look like it was peeling. In all, it took Twiggs 100 hours to create the ornament.

"What I wanted to do was to have the house say something about the people and keep it in its dilapidated condition. I knew all the other houses would be big elegant antebellum houses," Twiggs says.

Palmetto Trust and other groups have been working to protect the Mays home for many years. Until recently, however, their efforts were met with little success. No one could establish a relationship with the home's owners to get them interested in selling. The Mays family worked as tenant farmers and never owned the house or the land. And although preservationists had tried land swaps, they were not successful, explains Chad Lennox, executive director for the Palmetto Trust. …

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