By Meghan Caprez
When journalism professor Ann Schierhorn was a high school student at Florida State University School in 1966, she knew she was witnessing a story that needed to be told. Her classmates, Keith Neyland and Mahlon C. Rhaney, Jr., were the first African American students to desegregate the formerly all-white university high school.
Three years before, in 1963, four African American students had desegregated the Leon County, Fla., public schools. Now, 50 years after the first students desegregated Tallahassee schools, Schierhorn is telling their stories. With photography by JMC Lecturer David LaBelle, Schierhorn developed a museum exhibit called “They Led the Way” for the John G. Riley Center/Museum of African American History and Culture located in Tallahassee.
The museum is toured annually by hundreds of elementary school students in the Leon County district. This year, the students will see Schierhorn’s exhibit when they visit.
“What I wanted to capture was how it felt,” Schierhorn said. “I wanted younger people who weren’t alive during that time to see that these men and women made significant sacrifices in order to get a good education.”
Last fall, Schierhorn left Kent State on sabbatical to work on the story. She traveled to Florida and Georgia to make contact and interview eight students who desegregated Leon County’s schools. Schierhorn said that some of the people she interviewed remembered her as their classmate.
One of those was Neyland. His father, a professor at Florida A&M at the time, wanted Neyland to have more college opportunities, something he wasn’t in a position to do at the A&M university school. His father was hesitant to send him to the University School by himself, so an administrator allowed Neyland to ask his friend, Rhaney, to come with him.
“It wasn’t easy for them,” Schierhorn said. “They ate behind the gym because if they went into the cafeteria, they would hear hostile comments. Neyland was the first black student to play varsity football and basketball in North Florida. When he was sitting on the bench at away basketball games, people were calling out racist cheers at him and shooting spitballs.”
Schierhorn heard stories like this from all of the former students except for one: Melodee Thompson. Unlike the other students, Thompson did not desegregate a high school. In 1963, she entered the first grade at a Leon County elementary school.
“Her experience was so different because of her age when she entered the classroom,” Schierhorn said. “First graders just want to play.”
Despite most of the students’ hardships throughout their experience at primarily white high schools, every one of them continued their education in college and graduate school. Five received law degrees, two from Harvard Law. Today, the eight students have careers in law, medicine, education and business.
“This was a case study, in a way, of desegregation in the South,” Schierhorn said. “There were a lot of Tallahassees. Just because these students were all successful in their academic careers doesn’t mean that it wasn’t achieved without sacrifice and pain.”
“They Led the Way” will feature 20×30 portraits of the eight students, as well as their stories. Schierhorn also added a timeline of significant national events in the Civil Rights Movement to put Tallahassee’s desegregation into perspective.
Schierhorn said the museum will offer a “Were you there?” interactive element, allowing patrons who had experiences similar to the featured students to write about their stories.
Schierhorn is also developing a magazine filled with longer profiles and more interpretation of the students’ stories, she said. The magazine will be available at the museum and online so that patrons have something to take home from the exhibit. It will also be made available to any educators who may wish to use it in the classroom.
The exhibit opens today, Sept. 27, and both Schierhorn and LaBelle plan to be in attendance. The John G. Riley Center will host the exhibit for five months and will then make it available for other museums.
Photo: One of three students who desegregated Leon High School in Tallahasse, Fla., 50 years ago retraces his steps. Despite the harassment, Harold Knowles says: “It prepared me for going away to college. It was worth the price.” (photo by David LaBelle)