Updated on Feb. 6, 2020 at 4:45 p.m. ET
"I don't think as a kid I ever saw a minority physician," says Russell J. Ledet.
Ledet is a second-year medical student in the M.D./MBA program at the Tulane University School of Medicine, and he's African American. Last weekend he organized a trip to Whitney Plantation, now a museum in Edgard, La., for fellow members of the Tulane chapter of the Student National Medical Association, a student-run organization that supports black medical students.
A tweeted photo of 15 African American medical students posing in front of former slave quarters — wearing the short white coats that symbolize their status as doctors in training — has racked up more than 70,000 views and nearly 17,000 retweets in a matter of days.
"I wanted this photo to just show: We're here," Ledet says of the plantation photo. "This place is meant to destroy us. This place is meant to devalue us. But we here."
"And we're not going anywhere," adds his classmate Sydney Labat, another second-year med student at Tulane who appears in the photo.
"This is about resiliency," Labat says. She says that as they got ready for the shot, the students made the intentional decision to pose "looking determined and looking strong — embodying the strength of the people who lived on those grounds."
The photo shows that "you can be smart, you can be a doctor, you can be unapologetically black — all of those simultaneously," she says.
Ledet, originally from Lake Charles, La., is a U.S. Navy veteran and holds a Ph.D. in molecular oncology from New York University. He had previously visited the plantation (which says it's "the only plantation museum in Louisiana with an exclusive focus on the lives of enslaved people") with a friend who worked in the same lab at NYU.
"We were two African American males getting our Ph.D.s at NYU School of Medicine. There just aren't that many of us out there," Ledet says. "We wanted to make sure that we remain tied to our history and remain humble, you know, and understand whose shoulders we're climbing on — and pay homage."
When Ledet approached his SNMA classmates at Tulane with the idea of making a joint visit that would culminate in an informal photo shoot, the idea took off. They knew, Ledet says, that the photo had the potential to resonate with a wide audience.
"We are aware of our position," he says, "and what we mean to a whole lot of children. A whole lot of undergrads are hoping and praying to get an interview for medical school, or even somebody to just look at their application. We're here as living proof that it's possible. If we can do it, anybody can do it."
The photo is meant to be taken as "a collective vision for the future," he says, emphasizing that he sees it as an uplifting image, rather than one that dwells on the past.
We are our ancestors’ wildest dreams.✨— R.J. Ledet, Ph.D. #The15WhiteCoats (@theguywithyes) December 14, 2019
In the background, an original slave quarter.
In the foreground, original descendants of slaves and medical students. #whatatimetobealive #yeahwecandoboth pic.twitter.com/INOUMmc1cx
"Medical school is grueling. That goes beyond your race, ethnicity or your sexual orientation," he says. "We have a neurology exam in three days and right now I don't feel like the Energizer Bunny — I feel more like the battery you stick in your drawer because it doesn't work anymore. But I can look at that photo for motivation. I look at it and feel like 'Yo, we going,' " he says.
He hopes to motivate people beyond the medical community, as well. "I hope this image will be posted in somebody's classroom and some teacher will be able to say, 'Every last one of those people up there is a practicing physician.' "
Since going viral, Ledet and the other students have created a website to gather donations for two things: sending framed copies of the photos to schools, and providing scholarships to cover the cost of med school applications for students of color.
Labat grew up in a rural town in southern Mississippi, where she says she rarely saw black people in positions of authority or prestige. "If I had seen this photo when I was younger, it would have been validation that the people telling me that I couldn't be an orthopedic surgeon — that I should have a Plan B, but they didn't say that to my white classmates — that they can't hinder me in any way," she says.
Ledet says that some of the credit for organizing the outing belongs to Bennetta Horne, director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs at the Tulane University School of Medicine, for the ways she encourages students of color at the med school to be community-oriented.
Standing on the porch that day, of what was once a slave cabin, felt powerful for everyone involved. Ledet imagined what former residents of the building would make of the scene.
"I could just imagine our ancestors in heaven looking at us and being so happy," he says. "They're saying, 'Look at them. They're doing so well. Their resiliency is shining.' "
Emily Vaughn is an intern on NPR's Science Desk.