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‘They Led the Way’ Civil Rights Exhibition Opens to Acclaim

Posted Feb. 18, 2014

It started in 1963 with stark, black-and-white photographs -- images of shocking violence against civil rights protestors:  fire-hosing, cross-burnings, beatings. 

For professor Ann Schierhorn, then a 13-year-old living in Tallahassee, Florida, the images fueled a Schierhornpassion for social justice and journalism – motivations that caused her to create “They Led the Way,” a powerful civil rights exhibition on display in the FirstEnergy gallery of Franklin Hall (outside room 340) through March 19. 

“They Led the Way” debuted in mid-February with an opening reception and remembrance and reflection program that drew an attentive audience of students, faculty and the public.  The exhibition is part of the university’s Black History month celebration and JMC’s Diversity Speaker Series. 

The exhibition uses the research and reporting of Schierhorn and the photography of David LaBelle, JMC’s photojournalism coordinator, to tell the stories of eight children who desegregated the schools of Leon County, Florida, 50 years ago. 

For Schierhorn, this was more than a story or scholarly work. She had a personal connection with these students because several were her classmates. 

She spent two years intensely researching this project, but she had nursed the idea of telling these stories for decades.  “I came back to the project because, frankly, it wouldn’t leave me. I wanted the sacrifice of these students and the experience of school desegregation to be understood by students today, and I wanted to know how their lives turned out. I realized that it was a story that had not been told,” Schierhorn told the crowd. 

She located and interviewed each of the eight students – some of whom were reluctant to relive the painful stories. “These students were subject to ridicule and hostility from both the black and white community,” Schierhorn said. “I recall asking one Elaine Thorpe Cox [one of the students] what if felt like. She said, ‘I just wanted to be accepted as another human being.’ That quote haunted me.”

Despite or perhaps because of the hardships they faced, each of the students went on to excel academically, professionally and personally. All eight completed college and attended graduate school. Five have law degrees; one has both a medical degree and a law degree. Two have graduate degrees in Professor Gene Sheltoneducation.

One of the students, Mahlon C. Rhaney, Jr., videotaped remarks for the program. Rhaney, who went on to graduate from the United States Air Force Academy and Harvard Law School, underscored the importance of perseverance in the face of adversity. “We’re all different, but we face a lot of the same challenges. You can overcome adversity if you are determined,” he said. “The determination to have a better life and contribute to society is the biggest drive any of us can have.”

Another student, Harold Knowles, now a Tallahassee lawyer, told his story to inspire others to lead lives of gratitude and service. “I am standing on the shoulders of my mother. Whose shoulders are you standing on? Can you reach down and give someone else a hand?” 

The experience of photographing these students left a profound impression on LaBelle. “When I photographed them, I saw people who have suffered problems in life. Yet they are successful people. They believed in themselves and had a dream.  They work hard and the courage to stay focused,” he said.

JMC director Thor Wasbotten reflected on the importance of education. “As we learn about the lives of these eight youth, we are reminded of Dr. King’s words about the real meaning of education. Dr. King said ‘The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education,” Wasbotten said. “The boys and girls of Leon County – who are now accomplished men and women – represent for all of us the hallmarks of true education. Just as the legacy of Dr. King continues to resonate, so, too, do the lives of the men and women of Leon County.” 

“They Led the Way” first debuted at the John G. Riley Center/Museum of African American History and Culture in Tallahassee and will circulate to other cities.

Photo Credit: David Foster