Did You Know: Isaiah Mays is now at Arlington National Cemetery

By Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez
Published: Thursday, September 18, 2014 - 5:03pm
Updated: Friday, September 19, 2014 - 2:05pm
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(Photo by Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez/KJZZ)
Isaiah Mays is one of two African Americans who received the Medal Honor for actions in Arizona. He was awarded the Medal in 1890. Mays died in 1925 and was buried at the Arizona State Hospital. In 2009 he was interred, cremated and placed in an urn and
(Photo by Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez/KJZZ)
John Langellier is Director of the Arizona Historical Society Museum at Papago Park.
(Photo by Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez/KJZZ)
"Arizona and the Medal of Honor" is a traveling exhibit currently at the Arizona Historical Society Museum at Papago Park. The exhibit highlights Arizona’s history with the Medal of Honor.

For more than 80 years he was identified by a number. Until the federal government decided his resting place should be more befitting a military hero.         

Isaiah Mays was a corporal in the United States Army in the 1880s. He was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1890. Did You Know…Mays was buried at the Arizona State Hospital cemetery until 2009, when it was discovered he was never given a proper burial?

“He’s one of only two African Americans to receive the medal as a result of actions in Arizona," said John Langellier, director of the Arizona Historical Society Museum at Papago Park. He's also a military historian.

"And in his case is because of the fact that he was guarding along with another contingent of black troopers the payroll of over $20,000 that like in some great old Hollywood movie is set upon by bandits," Langellier said.

In today’s dollars, the payroll was in the hundreds of thousands. As we tour the museum’s latest exhibit "Arizona and the Medal of Honor," Langellier recounts the story behind Mays’ heroic action.

He said Mays was part of the 24th Infantry. He was traveling with other soldiers between Forts Grant and Thomas on May 11, 1889. They were escorting paymaster Major Joseph Wham when they were attacked.

"He fought literally with his life to protect the payroll of his fellow soldiers. Received abdominal wound and was wounded in both arms. Now in those days the weapons were heavy and they were one shot so even though he’s wounded with his arms being almost incapacitated and yet he survived and continued to fight.”

Langellier says no one was killed in the attack and the bandits got away with the money. He says its believed locals of a nearby community known to have paid off their debts with money that miraculously appeared, may have been the ones who planned the robbery.

In less than a year after the incident Mays was awarded the Medal of Honor. But after that little is known about what happened to him. Langellier says he ultimately ended up at the Territorial Insane Asylum—today the Arizona State Hospital.

“He’s at the state hospital because he has no money and when he passes that’s where he’s laid to rest,” Langellier said.

Mays died on May 2, 1925 at the age of 65.  He was buried with hundreds of other hospital patients at the time in a lot near Roosevelt and 28th Streets.

In 2009, Mays remains were disinterred, cremated and placed in an urn designed specifically for him and was interred with military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

Langellier says Mays' Medal of Honor has never been found.

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