Florida High student inspires creation of a new scholarship

Asia Alexander (third from right) was the force behind recognition of the first two Blacks to attend Florida High, Keith Neyland and Mahlon Rhaney Jr. (center).
Photo submitted
Mahlon Rhaney Jr. speaking with students at a ceremony in his honor at Florida High.
Photo submitted

By Cilicia Anderson
Outlook staff writer

Shauna Smith attended a Black history program last year at her alma mater to honor the first two students who attended the school after integration in 1964.

Following the ceremony that recognized Keith Neyland and Mahlon Rhaney Jr. as the first two Blacks to attend Florida State University School, Smith discovered that senior Asia Alexander was the driving force that made the event possible.

Smith, a former Tallahassee Community College professor, immediately decided to create a scholarship named in honor of the two men. She also wanted to recognize the work by Alexander, who will be the first recipient of the Neyland Rhaney Scholarship.

Her leadership and community activism was the impetus for Smith to make the recommendation.

“What really inspired me was when I attended a Black history program, where I am an Alumni of Florida High from the class of 1972 and the program they put on was just fantastic and it was so well done,” said Smith. “I found out that the young lady, the student leader at the school, Asia Alexander, was the one who put it on and I just thought it was an exceptional program.”

Alexander, who recently graduated from FSU School, which is better known as Florida High, is founder of “BIG” (Building Incredible Generations). The program promotes diversity and inclusion among students and it also addresses controversial topics such as racism within schools and the community.

While preparing for the Black History program, Alexander also reached out to the men’s families. She arranged for them to be flown to Tallahassee for the ceremony. 

As much as Alexander wanted to honor the first two students who integrated the school, she also wanted to bring awareness to a racial divide that she noticed on campus. Her personal experience drove her to find out who had gone through similar experiences before her.

“I went to the library and ended up finding out that one of the gentlemen, Mr. Neyland, wrote a book about his experience,” said Alexander. “I found both of the men, one of whom is deceased and one of them actually lives five minutes away from Florida High, which is a coincidence. But he hasn’t been back to the campus since he graduated because of the racial divide at our school so it was really cool to just find them and bring them back.”

Neyland, who died last September, was honored posthumously. His family flew from Las Vegas and Pittsburg for the tribute. They were joined by Rhaney, who still lives in Tallahassee. 

Alexander connected with the families through a professor who did an exhibit about both men a year before. Their families were thrilled that their contribution to history hadn’t gone unnoticed.

“I got a response immediately and they were so happy,” said Alexander. “I mean; Mr. Neyland’s family was sending picture books and all this stuff of him and Mr. Rhaney was extra excited and his wife and kids were excited. I just think that they were happy that someone actually recognized them for once.”

The issue of race at Florida High isn’t lost on Tyrone McGriff, a school administrator. He said diversity and inclusion training has been going on for the last two years to address concerns by students, parents and teachers.

“We hope that it will be a positive experience and I think we’ve already started to see some changes like the event that Asia put on, it was a phenomenal event,” said McGriff. “I don’t think without that open-mindedness it would have been able to happen without the administration and teachers realizing that we have some blind spots.”

With the creation of this new scholarship, McGriff says it will be a way to acknowledge students who have shown a similar drive in community work as Alexander and will uphold the values instilled by Neyland and Rhaney.

Alexander was not acknowledged as the recipient of the scholarship at the school’s annual senior banquet earlier this year because it was created after the fact. However, she was honored through social media posts by the school.

“I am extremely proud of Asia, she has always been a trendsetter and trailblazer and I know that she is going to have a very positive future,” said McGriff. ”I can’t say enough about her and the amount of work that she has put in over the years. I can speak for myself and the people at Florida High saying that we are all proud of her and I know I am proud of her.”

Moving forward, Smith is pushing to get more contributions to the scholarship so that students will continue to be awarded for keeping the school’s history and the legacy of Neyland and Rhaney alive.

“It was so moving to me as one of the children of that time who came in not too long after integration,” said Smith. “I just felt there ought to be an ongoing honoring of them in their historic place at Florida High.”

Ultimately Smith would like to have the scholarship endowed through the FSU Foundation. The goal is to reach a minimum of $50,000 to generate a scholarship of $2,000 a year.

To qualify for the scholarship students should have a minimum of a 3.0 grade point average, said Amanda Coffman, who works with the FSU Foundation.

“It is preferenced for African-American students but all students can apply and once they get the scholarship they can go wherever they want to go,” Coffman said. “We will make sure that money gets transferred to whatever school they choose.”

Contributions can be made by going to www.give.fsu.edu and search for the Neyland Rhaney Scholarship. Checks can be made out to the FSU foundation and sent to 325 W College Ave, Tallahassee, Fl. 32301.

Alexander, who will attend Howard University in the fall, hopes her time and work at Florida High inspire others to continue to address issues of inclusivity.

“I didn’t know that I could go this far with a lot of things that I have done and I think that just gives me the drive to keep going because it gives so many people motivation and a lot of other people are not going to stand up for themselves and I am willing to do it unapologetically,” said Alexander. “I think that standing up for somebody and standing up for myself has really taught me to keep proving myself and to keep going and be stronger because my attitude and personality. It’s not a bad thing; it’s a gift and my constant reminder to keep going.”