In September 1963, for the first time, four African American students walked through the doors of all- white Leon County public schools in Tallahassee, Florida. That action marked the end of the county’s segregated school system – 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
“They Led the Way” at the John G. Riley Museum recognizes these students’ perseverance and that of their contemporaries who integrated Florida State University High School and Rickards High School. The exhibit was conceived to help local school children, their parents, and other adults understand the importance of school integration by learning what life was like for the students who desegregated the schools.
Research was gathered through court documents, newspaper microfilms, yearbooks, and scrapbooks. Additionally, eight former students in Miami, Orlando, Tallahassee, and Atlanta were interviewed and their narratives written in the form of a magazine profile. Anecdotes and quotes from the interview are used extensively in each story to help today’s school children relate to the former students and understand the role young adults can have in changing society.
At the time of desegregation in Tallahassee, the local newspaper covered school integration as a government story, downplaying the human side. The researchers dealt with this challenge by locating a yearbook photo of each former student, as well as shooting a new photo. Placed side by side in the exhibit, one photo serves to reflect the pain of the experience, and the second represents the triumph of overcoming racism.
To extend the reach of the exhibit and aid schoolteachers, researchers produced a 32-page color magazine with profiles and photos. The John G. Riley Museum retains copies of the magazine which has also been coordinated distributed throughout local public schools.
Although this is the story of one city’s school desegregation, there were many Tallahassees in the South. “They Led the Way” was written to be understood as part of a national story, travel to other museums, and serve as a model for other communities that want to preserve the stories of their civil rights pioneers.