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‘They made a good life for all of us’ — First Achievers recognized, honored at exhibit and reception at Lincoln County Public Library

Pennsylvania real estate broker Ronny Benson grew up in Brookhaven. He flew down from Pittsburgh to see some of his mentors Saturday.

He looked at the framed photos of the First Achievers Exhibit at the Lincoln County Public Library and was overcome by memories, pointing out people who had helped mold him into the man he became, including his mother, Mae V. Benson. She couldn’t attend so he came in her place at the invitation of exhibit organizer Maxine Allen.

The exhibit of about 60 photographs and biographies have been compiled by Allen and her daughter, Jennifer Allen Stenson, over eight years. It will be on display in the Vernon Room through Black History Month.

Benson, a 1970 graduate of Brookhaven High School, planned to visit the week before, but rearranged his schedule for the reception Saturday at the library.

“It is absolutely fantastic, all of these people I’m looking at here, this is my history,” he said. “These are people that taught me and contributed to my upbringing and well-being. This is a moving experience, to see all of these faces in one place.”

Benson snapped his own pictures of the collection with his cell phone.

“They were all great community people,” he said. “They made a good life for all of us. This is something else to see.”

Allen’s nephew, the Rev. Davion Brown, spoke at the reception. It was also his first time to see the exhibit.

“It’s a wonderful time to step back and recognize the many great gifts African Americans have brought to our nation,” he said to the crowd of about 90 people. “Just reflect on some names with me for a moment — Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr, Malcom X, Nikki Giovanni, W.E.B. Dubois, Rosa Parks. How different would our country be without these leaders and the numerous others who fought for Civil Rights? These people have helped us learn what strength is, what perseverance is. They broke down barriers, they stood against injustice, they helped us pull together as a nation and overcome our darkest days. These people and so many others helped us build toward a greater nation where people are judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.”

Brown, who is a BHS graduate and currently a freshman at Mississippi College, also referenced famous black musicians, literary figures, scientists, entrepreneurs, athletes and politicians.

“The list could go on and on, but not only in our nation, but there are some people right here in Lincoln County that have made great impacts in our community,” he said.

He told how the disciple Peter took a leap and followed Jesus off the boat because he dared to be different.

“And that’s how all of these first achievers have been,” he said. “They dared to do something that has never been done before. And I personally want to thank all of the first achievers. Because of you deciding to take a leap off the boat. Deciding to do something that had never been done before, it has opened doors for so many of us and I want to thank you.”

Brown said he is encouraged by the people featured in the exhibit and wants to make a change like they did.

“I want to make an impact,” he said. “There is still much work to be in this nation, state, and our community, and I am determined to be a part of that change that must take place. And I pray there’s someone else in here who feels like that as well.”

Allen’s sister, Dorothy Wortham, served as emcee of the event. This was also her first time to see the exhibit.

“The people who are represented here, they did a wonderful thing,” she said. “As Davion said, they stepped out on faith basically and pursued their dreams in some cases, and in other cases, it was just an obligation that they must do.”

Fannie Locwood Tate Mullins and Stanford Qualls were the new additions to the exhibit this year.

Mullins, an Ohio native, came to Brookhaven in 1907 to teach. Fannie L. Mullins School is named for the educator and trailblazer.

Qualls was the first black Mississippi State University Extension Service county agent for Lincoln County. He also runs the Bethal AME Church food pantry.

Allen hopes to add to the collection and is looking for more information on Mullins and Qualls as well as suggestions and information about other notable black Americans from Lincoln County or surrounding areas. She can be reached at 601-748-1381.