Washington -- Fifty years ago, Minnijean Brown defied death threats, hostile mobs and even the Arkansas National Guard to attend all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Since then she has been honored for her courage.
At a March 21, 2007, ceremony in Washington, sponsored by the National Women’s History Project, Representative Vic Snyder of Arkansas recalled the Minnijean of 1957, describing her as “a powerful, amazing 16 year old who challenged every type of racist stereotype.”
He also told the audience that if they visit the historic site at Central High today, they will meet another amazing woman: park ranger Spirit Trickey, Minnijean’s daughter and an expert on the pivotal role her mother played in the civil rights struggle.
Minnijean Brown Trickey, now 65, was beginning junior year in secondary school when she became history. She and eight others -- the “Little Rock Nine” -- would be the first blacks to enroll at Central, under a local plan to comply with a Supreme Court ruling making school segregation illegal.
Central was a premier school, named “America’s Most Beautiful High School” by the American Institute of Architects. As Minnijean looked forward to her junior year, she did not anticipate learning about deep-seated racism, nor did she expect to trigger a crisis between the state and federal governments.
“I just thought: ‘It’s a big school. It’s in my neighborhood. It’s there. I should go,’” she told USINFO in a telephone interview the day of the ceremony. “We all felt good. We knew that Central High School had so many more courses, and dramatics and speech and tennis courts and a big, beautiful stadium.”
But Minnijean learned unexpected and painful lessons that have stayed with her over the decades, as she went to college, married, raised children and worked as a teacher and social worker.
In 1957, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, up for reelection and looking to gain votes among racists, undercut the integration plan by ordering state National Guard troops to bar the blacks from Central High. On September 4, the Little Rock Nine went to school to face an unruly mob that called them names, shoved them and spat upon them.
Minnijean recalls being “horrified” that military troops were there to keep her out of school, rather than to protect her from the mob. She thought back to daily recitals of the pledge of allegiance and emergency drills -- “hiding under the desk from the Russians” -- at her all-black school. Those routines had led her to believe that anyone in a U.S. military uniform would help her. “The idea of who had the power and how they would use it had never crossed my mind,” she said. “There were uncomfortable things I found out the first day.”
On subsequent days, the black students were met by larger mobs and rebuffed by troopers. When she thinks about it now, Minnijean said, she is fascinated by how unprotected they really were.
By late September, the governor’s defiance had set off a constitutional crisis, and President Dwight Eisenhower dispatched U.S. Army troops to Little Rock to ensure attendance of the black students.
Although troops stayed during the school year to keep the peace, white students harassed the Little Rock Nine. In February 1958, a blow from a white girl’s purse caused Minnijean to snap. She called the girl a name. It was Minnijean who was expelled. (She finished high school in New York.)
World media recorded the black students’ difficulties, giving momentum to a burgeoning civil rights movement in the United States. Spirit, 27, gives interpretive tours and is amazed at foreigners who remember the Little Rock Nine from television. She said: “I knew about it, was proud of my mother, but never realized the magnitude. … Indonesia, Jamaica, all over the world.”
THE NEXT GENERATION
As Spirit was growing up, if she asked questions, her mother answered. She got the basic story when her mother came to her school to talk during Black History Month.
“I didn’t talk to my children about my experiences in Little Rock,” Minnijean said. “It was about irrationality and nonthinking people. I am never going to say it made sense. It didn’t make sense to me then, and it doesn’t now.”
But Spirit remembers when she and her sister, both teenagers, rolled their eyes and complained when their mother took them to a folk festival. Minnijean got emotional and said, “You don’t understand the privileges you have that I couldn’t have dreamed of when I was your age.” It is something any parent might say, but Spirit knew the reprimand came from a deeper place.
Today, when Minnijean talks to groups and Spirit is present, Spirit listens carefully. “Piece by piece, I get more,” she said. She reads old newspaper articles in scrapbooks she finds, even when her mother warns her off of them because they are “vicious.”
“She knows more about it than I do,” Minnijean said. “I really am learning from her. She has a different perspective.”
Minnijean said she’s heard that if Spirit has an inattentive tour group, she will say, “You know, I’m talking about my mother!”
“It is fabulous to be a historical figure because of my kids,” Minnijean said. “Maybe I wouldn’t care so much if I didn’t have a family using its lessons in their life. I’m particularly proud of Spirit; she’s doing a really good job.”