Local civil rights champion memorialized

Submitted photos Charles Mays through the years.

The late civil rights activist, artist and philanthropist Charles E. Mays (1933-2019), without question, determinedly left the world a better place than he found it.

Mays would’ve greatly contributed had he merely joined the ranks of conscientious men and women who work with the NAACP, Urban League, and other organizations to secure social progress. 

He did that and much more.

Mays worked as an NAACP field director on the civil rights front line in Mississippi. In Minneapolis, he chaired the youth committee, was the Great Plains youth field director, and vice president of the institution’s state conference.

He also worked as president of the Joint Committee for Equal Opportunity of Greater Minneapolis; directed public relations and human resources at Pilot City Health Center; served as director of the MLK Office for St. Paul Family Services; and developed and oversaw Hennepin County Home School’s chemical dependency program. 

This is but an indication of the breadth of Mays’ penchant for taking direct action to promote fair housing, education, voting rights, employment, and otherwise eradicate African Americans’ longstanding status as “second-class citizens.”

Gathered recently at Sovereign Grounds cafe in South Minneapolis, colleagues who were both professionally and personally associated with the community leader fondly reflected on his career accomplishments, life, and his humanity. 

Elizabeth Moore knew Mays nearly 50 years. “He worked very hard for the community on many social and political problems,” she recalled. This included soldiering beside Dr. Anita Bracey-Brooks, who was key in establishing the University of Minnesota’s Black History Department. 

“[Bracey-Brooks] started the Minnesota chapter of the National Association of Black Social Workers, but had medical problems. Charles, myself, Chester McCoy and others took over her work and have been active ever since. 

“In later years, Charles and I worked [at] AARP where he became president of the Twin Cities chapter,” Moore noted. “He was very compassionate, a loving and giving person, intelligent and had a sense of humor. I really miss him.”

 Art Serotoff, along with the Martin Luther King Park Legacy Council, successfully put Mays’ name forward for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Living the Dream” Award in 2015.

Serotoff recalled that in addition to Mays’ many accomplishments, including playing a part in the Minneapolis NAACP’s winning lawsuit against the Minneapolis Public Schools to remove so-called separate but equal education, “He had another side. Charles was a great patron of the arts. He was a collector of truly amazing artwork done by people of African descent across the globe. 

“He did trips [abroad] several times. In his house he had paintings. He had masks, sculpture. A ton of books. He didn’t get the chance, but he wanted to make his home into a museum to recognize art. He was real good friends with Ta-coumba Aiken, Seitu Jones. He would go down to their studios.”  

Mays was also a founding member of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., as well as an advisory member of Obsidian Arts celebrating Black visual culture.

Verlena Matey-Keke noted, “What I really appreciated was that he wasn’t only committed to projects he worked on. He supported the work of others.” Toward that end, his work was inclusive, as he showed concern for LGBTQ issues, including discrimination. He staunchly supported the African American AIDS Task Force and worked to reduce the indignity associated with HIV and AIDS. 

More than a high-profile figurehead, he’d roll up his sleeves to sit one-on-one with individuals. Dr. Annie Baldwin recounted an instance of Mays aiding an aspiring professional who, though skilled, lacked sufficient savvy to navigate the system. “A gentleman Charles and I worked with had trained to be a tailor. [He was] required to take additional courses, but did not understand how to answer University of Minnesota test questions. 

“At my kitchen table, [we] helped him pass that test. He was then able to work in Minneapolis Public Schools. Charles was interested in helping anybody when he thought he could lend a hand.”

A memorial service at Unity South Church was held for Mays on July 4 with Twin Cities’ theater luminary T. Mychael Rambo offering welcoming remarks. The program, “A Life of Empathy, Compassion, Philanthropy, and Service,” was appropriately titled.

After a lifetime of trailblazing activism, Mays passed peacefully on June 5 in the care of his niece Michele Bratcher Goodwin and sister Gloria Mays-Fulsom. He was 85 years old. A memorial website, charlesmays.org, is dedicated to his legacy.

There will be a celebratory observance of Charles Mays’ life and legacy on July 23 at 6 pm at Martin Luther King Park, located at 4055 Nicollet Ave., S, in Minneapolis. The event is sponsored by Minneapolis AARP and the Martin Luther King Park Legacy. The gathering is open to the public.