Martin Luther King Jr. with Benjamin Mays, the Bates College graduate and Morehouse College president whom King considered his spiritual mentor and intellectual guide. Courtesy Bates College

With the approach of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and as the nation continues to reexamine its troubled record on race, an incident in Lewiston more than 75 years ago affirms that the roots of racial issues stretch deep and were never just a Southern concern.

The incident occurred in 1945 when Bates College graduate Benjamin Elijah Mays wanted to have a meal in the city’s leading restaurant.

Mays, a civil rights activist and the president of Morehouse College who later gave the eulogy at the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, was already a well-known figure as World War II neared its end.

About 750 people gathered on March 18, 1945, to hear him speak at the now-demolished United Baptist Church on Main Street for a gathering called the University of Life.

Mays told those in attendance they could choose three paths in the world: the low road taken by sinners, the middle one picked by common people and the high road that attracted saints. He urged young people to choose the latter “because the world moves forward on the feet of saints.”

Mays’ eloquence and authority earned the respect of many, including King, who later referred to him as “my spiritual mentor and my intellectual father.”

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Yet despite his renown, and his close ties to Bates, the only thing about Mays that mattered to some in Lewiston in 1945 was the darkness of his skin.

Though segregation had no legal standing in Maine, Jim Crow was alive and well when the downtown DeWitt Hotel, a beloved dining spot a stone’s throw from City Hall, told Mays he could not eat in the dining room with other patrons because of his race.

A postcard shows the DeWitt Hotel, which once stood on the corner of Park and Pine streets in Lewiston. Robert R Bedard Postcard Collection

For well over a century, the five-story brick DeWitt Hotel, which stood between the Lewiston Evening Journal’s office and what came to be called Kennedy Park, was the city’s finest.

Its dining room, on the second floor, “was noted not only for its good food, but also for its excellent service and hospitality,” the Journal said shortly after the hotel fell to the wrecking ball in the mid-1960s.

“Family dinners gave the room a most pleasant air” on big occasions, the paper added.

As described in newspapers in 1945, organizers of the University of Life sought to hold a dinner party in the main dining room at the DeWitt that would include Mays among the guests.

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Dr. Percy L. Vernon, the church’s minister and host for the University of Life, asked the hotel manager during a Rotary Club meeting several days beforehand whether there would be a problem with Mays’ inclusion at the Sunday dinner.

The manager, Allen Browne, responded that it would be a mistake to allow Mays to eat in the public dining room. Browne told the Bates student newspaper he worried about what might happen if he said yes.

Browne said that a few years earlier, some Bates professors and African American guests had eaten in the main dining hall at the hotel, causing several Lewiston and Auburn women to leave the room in a huff, refusing to pay for the meals they had ordered.

The dining room at the DeWitt Hotel in Lewiston, depicted in a mid-20th century postcard. Private collection

The manager said the visitors at the time were “extremely embarrassed” and he wanted to prevent a recurrence.

Browne offered to seat the church party in a private room at no extra charge, but Vernon turned him down. They went to another establishment instead.

Browne said he thought that everyone involved left the matter on friendly terms.

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But the next day, the Journal criticized the hotel for turning Mays away.

“We have faith in Lewiston people and know they generally disapprove of acts which smack of race prejudice,” the paper said. It urged those involved “to clear the city’s name of any possible charge of inhospitality to such a distinguished gentleman as Dr. Mays.”

The episode spurred a minor kerfuffle in town, with some criticizing the hotel and some defending it, before the entire episode faded away.

The Christian Association at Bates, one of the largest student groups then, as well as some college administrators and faculty, said they would not patronize the DeWitt if it continued to discriminate.

Browne told the student paper that he had also heard from “several ladies” who phoned to tell him they were glad Mays had not been served or they would never have eaten at the hotel again.

Asked directly about the DeWitt’s policy, Browne answered, “As soon as the people in town will accept and entertain Negroes in their own homes, the hotel will take them in.”

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Benjamin Mays Courtesy the Thea Bowman AHANA and Intercultural Center, Boston College

Times have changed and so has Lewiston. Today, the DeWitt is long gone. Even the now-empty building that took its place, which started as a bank and then for years housed some Sun Journal operations, is likely to face demolition soon if revitalization plans to build new housing move ahead.

If Mays ever mentioned the incident, his words are forgotten.

In his autobiography, though, he said that growing up in South Carolina he experienced a “depressing, terrifying” type of segregation, but in the North he also found prejudice, sometimes “just as ego-wounding, just as embarrassing.”

Mays also said that hotels and restaurants in northern cities would on occasion refuse to serve him.

Mays, born in rural South Carolina, graduated from Bates in 1920 and never forgot the formative role it played in his life, which included being a pastor, a professor, the founding dean of the School of Religion at Howard University, head of the Atlanta Board of Education and considered one of the most influential people in American history. He frequently visited Bates College and later served as one of its trustees.

Benjamin E. Mays, middle, back row, poses with a 1919 Bates College debate team. Muskie Archives and Special Collections Library

As a student at Bates, Mays recounted, he experienced freezing winters but little prejudice.

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“There were only a few Negroes in the whole state of Maine,” Mays wrote years later, “and in the small towns and rural areas a Negro was a real curiosity.”

Even in Lewiston, Mays recounted, there were fewer than 50 African Americans.

Among the jobs he held during his student days was one washing dishes at “a restaurant in downtown Lewiston.”

It may have been the DeWitt, one of the few in those days busy enough to need to hire dishwashers from among the students at Bates.

Mays’ time at Bates changed his life.

He did so well at the college, he said, that he “finally dismissed from my mind for all time the myth of the inherent inferiority of all Negroes and the inherent superiority of all whites,” notions taken as a matter of course in his native South Carolina.

“Bates College did not ‘emancipate’ me,” Mays wrote in his autobiography. “It did the far greater service of making it possible for me to emancipate myself, to accept with dignity my own worth as a free man. Small wonder that I love Bates College!”


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