Jacqueline Christion, head bowed-chin to chest and arms folded, watched footage of a familiar scene on Wednesday. She had seen this footage before. In fact, she was one of the features in this particular film.
It was on a day in October of 1961. She along with 12 other black children started their first day of elementary school—at an all-white school.
"It was exciting, but I was nervous and scared," Christion recounts on the film.
Christion lifted her head to the screen as she heard the voice of a friend, Sharon Malone, "Once that door closed and our parents walked out of that school, it was us."
"The Memphis 13" premiered in the Beale Room of the University of Memphis' University Center to a crowd of more than 30 students and 30 university professors and personnel. The documentary accounted the experiences of 13 African American 5-year-olds who were the first to integrate Memphis City Schools. The group was divided and sent to four inner-city elementary schools: Rozelle, Bruce, Gordon and Springdale.
"That was a part of our childhood that we just wanted to shut out of our lives for the rest of our lives," Malone said on the panel that afternoon.
Of the 13 students, six were in attendance: Jacqueline Christion (Springdale); Dwania Kyles (Bruce); Menelik Fombi (Bruce);Sharon Malone and Sheila Malone (Gordon ); and Joyce Bell White (Rozelle).
"If you would have come to me today and told me, 'We want to send your kids to a nice school with nice white folks,' No no no," Fombi said, who is the son of Memphis civil rights activist and lawyer, A.W. Willis. "I appreciate the strength and courage my mother and father had."
The idea to integrate the all-white schools was an effort led by Memphis NAACP leaders Maxine and Vasco Smith. As stated in the documentary, finding parents of first-graders was not hard, but convincing parents to send their children to all-white schools was challenging.
Dawina Kyles is the daughter of civil rights activist, the Rev. Samuel Kyles who was alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the day he was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1964.
"My parents came to Memphis to be a part of the Civil Rights Movement," Kyles said. "They were really young, around 25. I can't imagine picking up three small children, moving from Chicago to Memphis and jumping into the fire as they did. They jumped right in."
At 5-years-old, Kyles said she was fully aware of what was going on.
"I would have to give it to my parents for creating an environment for me where I maintained a real semblance of sanity because we had P.U.S.H on Saturday, church on Sunday, and choir rehearsal on Wednesday. So it created a balance for me," Kyles said.
White, an employee at the university, recalled one of her most memorable experiences was the quality of their textbooks.
"When we were at our old school, the books were tore up and handing by the bind by a piece of thread," White said. "But when we got to the new school, they gave you a book out of a box. It was a new book. You could smell the new."
The panelists attested that physical abuse was not a prominent issue while attending the schools. However, the psychological strain as a child was overwhelming.
"We were damaged as children, mentally. We wanted to do what our parents wanted us to do. But we endured a lot mentally," said White, who left Rozelle after her third-grade year.
Fombi added that he had not even told his own children about his experience at Bruce. He had spent many years educating his children about black history while secluding his own in an effort to block out the pain.
"I had never told [my children] about my own personal pain," he said. "I remember when the newspaper first reported about us. I grabbed a paper and there I was on the front page. I broke down and cried. Soon after, my children called me and asked me why hadn't I told them. Because it hurt too much."
Even though the activists have and are finding healing, they say that it does not help to see Memphis moving backwards when it comes to racial and educational equality.
On Feb. 25, Shelby County School board voted to close 9 of the 13 schools due to low enrollment and underachievement. Gordon Elementary, attended by Sharon and Sheila Malone, was one of the schools voted to close.
"It's like we are moving backwards," Sharon Malone said. "After [Memphis City Schools] gave up the charter, the suburbs formed their own districts. All we have now are Memphis City School children who are predominately African American. We basically reversed what we did and it is a slap in the face to the 13 of us."
Not only was closing the inner-city schools offensive to the Memphis 13, they were also candid in regards to the lack of education around Memphis history.
"I took a poll in church one Sunday, and I asked 'How many of you know about the Little Rock 9?' All the hands went up. I then asked, 'How many of you know about the Memphis 13?' People were looking around," Sharon Malone said.
Native Memphis students who attended the event attested that they have not heard of the Memphis 13. City Councilwoman, Wanda Halbert, stood to express even she had never heard of the group until recently even though one of her aunts is one of the Memphis 13.
"I asked my mother why we didn't know about this, she would say it hurt too much to talk about it," Halbert said. "We have to tell this story in a bigger way. All of our children need to see the sacrifices that were made for them to attend school and have the opportunities that they enjoy today."
The film was directed by Cecil L. Humphrey's Law School professor Daniel Kiel. A native Memphian, Kiel said his motivation for the film sparked while researching desegregation in education.
“Ever since I started doing the research, I wanted to find these people and find out what it felt like in the schools and what it felt like for these students," Keil, a 2004 Harvard Graduate, said.
As an education law professor, he felt there was a void in Memphis history that had not been taught in regards to desegregation after the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which declared segregated schools unconstitutional.
"Every time we see Daniel, we thank him because if he did not make this documentary, it would have never been told." Sharon Malone said.
Alongside the Memphis 13 panelists was Grace Meecham, who participated in a protest at a Walgreen's lunch counter in 1960 in Memphis with five other students from Lemoyne-Owen College. Also in attendance was Bertha Rodgers Looney, a member of the Memphis State 8, the first black college students to integrate Memphis State in 1959.