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Lander Presents Awards in First Dr. Benjamin E. Mays Essay Contest


Baylee Wilson, second from left, of Abbeville High School, won first first in Lander University’s inaugural Dr. Benjamin E. Mays High School Essay Contest. From left are Thomas Histon, a student teacher at Abbeville High School; Rhett Allord, of Ninety Six High School, and Gray McCrea, of Greenwood High School. Photo by Laura Wood

Lander University has presented awards in the first annual Dr. Benjamin E. Mays High School Essay Contest to students in the Lakelands.

The competition honors the achievements of Mays, a Greenwood native and renowned educator and mentor to leaders in the U.S. civil rights movement.

Baylee Wilson, of Abbeville High School, earned first place for her essay, titled "Civil Rights Movement Essay: Dr. Benjamin E. Mays.” Thomas Histon, an Abbeville High School student teacher who was an instructor to Wilson, also was recognized.

Second place honors were awarded to Rhett Allord, of Ninety Six High School, for his essay, titled "How Food Banks Can Address Food Insecurity Using Benjamin Mays' 5 Core Principles." An essay titled, "Benjamin Mays Action Plan," earned third place for Gray McCrea, of Greenwood High School.

Dr. Kevin Witherspoon, who is the first to hold the Dr. Benjamin E. Mays Endowed Chair at Lander, said the competition’s entries were outstanding. “After the top three essays were selected by the judges, there remained a number of essays that were identified as significant in quality. For that reason, an additional seven awards were given to recognize the contributions of other students.”

Honorable mention awards were presented to Gabriel Blizzard, Ean Zenil Escobar, Emmett Hamilton, Aaryan Patel and Reagan Sherwood, all of Greenwood High School; Natalie Cowan, of Ninety Six High School, and Kannon Roberts, of McCormick High School.

The topic for the essay competition focused on "Benjamin E. Mays and the Spirit of Social Activism," Witherspoon said.

Teachers in area high schools developed assignments that incorporated Benjamin Mays’ leadership qualities and what Witherspoon  described as Mays’ “5 Core Principles”: 1) The Capacity for Love and Forgiveness; 2) Working Together; 3) Living the Life of "the High-Minded Soul"; 4) Hard Work, Professionalism and Dignity; and 5) Moral Courage.

Building on those ideas, teachers developed their own assignments and then submitted the top essays as nominees for the contest. “Extending our understanding of Dr. Mays into the schools and our community is not only part of the mission of the Dr. Benjamin E. Mays Chair at Lander, but more importantly, inspires more young people in our community to learn from the peerless example he set and hopefully to make positive changes in the future,” Witherspoon said.

The Dr. Benjamin E. Mays Endowed Chair was created in 2020 through a gift to The Lander Foundation from Doug and Sally Kauffmann. Doug is the former chair of The Lander Foundation board of directors, and Sally is a 1975 alumna. The Kauffmanns’ gift created the first endowed chair in the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences and the second endowed chair at Lander University.

The gift to Lander honors the enduring legacy of Mays, the son of former slaves whose insatiable desire for education led him to Bates College in Maine and later to the University of Chicago, where he first earned a master’s degree and later a doctorate. He was president of Morehouse College for 28 years and became a mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Mays has been called the “Schoolmaster of the Civil Rights Movement” because of his mentorship of King and many other civil rights leaders.