Stanhope Elmore ninth grader Olivia Stephens said she was shocked to learn that she'd won first place in the high school essay division of a districtwide Black History Month contest, spearheaded by District 2 Board of Education member Wendell Saxon.

Stephens and her mother visited Wetumpka's Black History Museum Saturday afternoon to see her winning essay about the late civil rights leader, Rep. John Lewis, on display. The work of all the winners, as well as others, was on display at the Black History Museum Saturday from noon to 4 p.m. The winners were also recognized at Tuesday's board of education meeting.

"I was so excited," Stephens said about her win. "I was shocked for me as a ninth grader to win. I didn't think I would win because I'm so young."

The voluntary contest invited third through 12th grade students to complete a poster board display or write an essay about an African American hero of the past or present.

Third through fifth graders were invited to create a poster board about an African American hero of the past or present while sixth through 12th graders were asked to write short essays ranging in length from a minimum of 300 words to 500 words depending on grade level. 

Sixth through eighth graders wrote essays answering the question, “Who would you pick as a role model and why?” The essay topic for ninth through 12th graders focused on how the contributions of African Americans have impacted their lives.

Stephens said she decided to write about Lewis, who died in July 2020 from pancreatic cancer, because she wanted to learn more about him. Lewis fought for racial equality in the Jim Crow South and emerged as a leader in the movement. He spent the majority of his life fighting injustice. He continued the fight when he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1986, representing Georgia's 5th District. In the 30-plus years that he served as a member of Congress, Lewis became known as "the conscience of Congress" as was respected by those on both sides of the political aisle.

Stephens and her mother were present in downtown Montgomery on the day Lewis' funeral motorcade made its way from Selma to Montgomery, following the same path Lewis and many other civil rights leaders did during the original march in 1965 from Selma to Montgomery during which protesters faced brutal attacks by state troopers. The experience piqued Stephens' interest in the American icon.

"As an African American, I really appreciate the opportunity to write about another African American and how he, not only impacted my life and my future, but played a large part in pushing for the equality of races."

First, second and third place winners were named in each of the three categories. In the poster contest, Airport Road Intermediate School student Kendall Allen won first place with a poster about late actor Chadwick Boseman. Wetumpka Elementary's Taylore Bozeman placed second with a poster about the first black woman elected to Congress, Shirley Chisholm; and Holtville Elementary student Hailey Owens placed third with her poster about South African president and anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela.

In the middle school essay competition, Wetumpka Middle School student Charlotte Brown won first place with her essay about Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon, considered a pioneer in the field, who later became a politician. Millbrook Middle's Sarah Grace Nickerson took second place with an essay about Condoleeza Rice, the first black woman selected as the Secretary of State of the United States. Wetumpka Middle's Felicity Kemp won third place with her essay about Benjamin O. Davis Jr., an Air Force general and commander of the World War II Tuskegee Airmen. He was the first black Brigadier general in the United States Air Force.

In the high school essay contest, Stanhope Elmore student Shemai'ya Peak placed second with an essay about Harriet Tubman, NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson and Ida B. Wells, a prominent journalist, activist and researcher. Holtville High's Sydney Tait won third place with an essay about actress and mental health advocate Taraji P. Henson. 

Saxon said he was pleased with student participation in the contest. A total of 53 middle school essays, 33 high school essays and 35 elementary posters were judged. Some high school students also submitted Black History Month posters they'd completed for unrelated school projects. The high school posters were displayed but were not judged.

Each first-place winner received a $100 prize, while second place winners got $75 and third place winners were given $50.

Other students who were among the top 10 entries in their respective category received $15 each. They were:

-Ava Glass

-Aubrey Grier

-Raliyah Humphrey

-Lindsay Thomas

-Charlotte Stovall

-Steffen Poole

-Ashley Green

-Kendra Williams

-Zoie Ball

-Mariya Owes

-Nick Redmon

-Macin James

-Lige Westbrook

-William Anderson

-Sarah Sistrunk

-Sisson Baylor

-Charles Johnson III

-LaMonica Smith

-Mallory Dobbs

-Shawkat Kochi

-McElrath Madison

-Zamarria Ferrel

-Jonathan Clarke

The contest was sponsored by the following community partners:

-Wendell Saxon, District 2 Elmore County Board of Education

-Yvonne Saxon

-Elmore County Board of Education and Superintendent Richard Dennis

-Bobby Mays

-NAACP Elmore County Chapter

-Cheryl Tucker, District 2 Wetumpka City Council

-Mike Waters

-Billie Rawls and Patricia Williams, Black History Museum

-Elmore County Schools Curriculum Directors

-The Emanon Group

-Alabama State University, National Alumni Association, Elmore County

-Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Omega Xi Zeta Chapter

-3BConcepts

-Jacquelyn Thomas, Ward 1 Millbrook City Council

-Hermon Lodge #260

-Stanhope Elmore Beta Club