With a profound photograph — taken where their forebears had been enslaved — 15 Black medical students from Tulane University connected a painful past and a promising future.
Among them was Sydney Labat — once awarded the “Miss PCHS” title and voted “Most Likely to Succeed” at Pass Christian High School. Now a third-year medical student at Tulane, Labat cleared her schedule to be present for the photo at Whitney Plantation in Edgard, Louisiana. She and her classmates wore white coats and stoic expressions as they stood in front of the plantation’s slave quarters.
“I felt the presence of our ancestors in that space,” Labat says. “I also had a whirlwind of emotions flowing through me because while I was extremely saddened that my ancestors were treated in this way, I also was extremely proud that I am a descendant of such resilient people.” The photo, snapped last December, went viral — thrusting the students and their message into the spotlight. From that notoriety, 15 White Coats was founded, committed to reshaping cultural imagery for African American children.
More often than not, Labat says, no one will tell them they can pursue a career in medicine — nor will they typically see Black physicians in their daily lives or imagine doctors who look like them.
“How can you be what you cannot see? You can’t,” Labat says. “The 15 White Coats was established to change that — to inspire young students to pursue their dreams no matter the circumstances and to aid in the accomplishment of their goals by way of various scholarships and mentorship initiatives.”
Labat herself didn’t always want to be a doctor. She aspired to speak multiple languages and become a lawyer or ambassador. Then during her junior year of high school, she tore her ACL during basketball practice, which felt like the end of the world at the time.
“It was truly a blessing in disguise because my journey through the injury and recovery is what sparked my interest in medicine,” Labat says. She went on to attend Xavier University of Louisiana, the only historically black and Catholic university in the nation, where her love for medicine and science expanded — as did her determination to be a voice for the marginalized.
“If we can convince at least one child to follow their dreams despite the odds, we have done our job.”
“(Sydney) is the most passionate ‘champion’ I know,” says her mother, Dr. Rymsky Graves-Labat. “She values friendships and humanity. She is strong in her faith and her beliefs. I have observed her give so freely that she will often put herself in harm’s way to save another.”
Graves-Labat realized early on that her daughter was destined to be a policy developer and change-maker. She taught her children to always “claim it” — and she has no doubt her daughter will achieve her aim of becoming a doctor for a national team, a professor at a medical school or the U.S. surgeon general.
“She generally speaks her goals and dreams into existence,” Graves-Labat says, “and I am confident that these goals won’t be any different.”
Labat pledges to always do her part to effect positive change for her community and the world. In light of racial unrest across the country and the Black Lives Matter Movement, she views 15 White Coats as “just one arm of a very large tree of organizations” pushing for equality and justice.
Going forward, she says, the group will continue their initiative to place their photo in 100,000 learning spaces nationwide, as well as fund several scholarships for Black students wanting to pursue a career in medicine. To contribute to their efforts or learn more, visit www.the15whitecoats.org.
“If we can convince at least one child to follow their dreams despite the odds,” Labat says, “we have done our job.”