Woman shares story of integrating schools
Nonviolence week event gives mic to one of the Little Rock Nine
YOUNGSTOWN — Minnijean Brown-Trickey vividly recalls the threats and torment she endured daily in high school while making history 65 years ago, but she is equally troubled by what she sees as many of the same wrongs today.
“In 2022, schools are still segregated” based largely on race, color, ethnicity and language, she said.
Brown-Trickey, 81, spoke virtually from her British Columbia home at Monday evening’s Mingle with Minni event about her experiences when she was one of nine black students who integrated the all-white Central High School in September 1957 in Little Rock, Ark.
Hosting the informal gathering at Flambeau’s Live, 2308 Market St., on the South Side, was Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past.
On what should have been the first day of school for Brown-Trickey and the other eight black students — Elizabeth Eckford, Thelma Mothershed, Terrence Roberts, Melba Beals, Ernest Green, Jefferson Thomas, Gloria Ray and Carlotta Walls — a furious all-white mob gathered outside and the students were unable to enter, she vividly remembered.
Also preventing their entry was Gov. Orval Faubus’ decision to mobilize the Arkansas National Guard at the school to defy desegregation efforts, Brown-Trickey noted.
Before the nine students were able to enter the four-square-block school several weeks later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower had ordered about 1,200 U.S. Army troops with the Louisville, Ky.-based 101st Airborne Division to the city to ensure the students’ safety, she recalled.
Some in the white mob who were viciously opposed to integration carried effigies, made death threats against the black teens and spouted hateful comments toward them. Perhaps more disturbing to Brown-Trickey was that some also had signs claiming God and Jesus were on the mob’s side.
“I was 15, and I was never hated before. We were the objects of this horrible hate,” Brown-Trickey told an audience of about 30. “Needless to say, I lost my innocence on that day.”
Once the black students were ensconced in the five-story school, however, the “internal story” of their often tortuous odyssey took place and included a volley of daily threats, as well as bullying and violence against them by some students and complicit acceptance by many others.
Compounding Brown-Trickey’s and the others’ torment was an unwritten rule that if a teacher failed to witness an incident, it was treated as though it never occurred, she said.
In early 1958, Brown-Trickey was expelled for referring to one of her tormentors as “white trash.” As a result, two black psychologists in New York City, one of whom had roots in Arkansas, took the teen under their wing, and she finished the year at the predominantly Jewish and progressive New Lincoln School, where she made friends, appeared in plays and musicals, and “had no death threats,” she said.
Brown-Trickey noted that exacerbating the Little Rock school crisis was that rather than following U.S. Supreme Court orders to desegregate, Faubus closed the city schools for the 1958-59 school year. In response, the vast majority of white students attended state-funded, all-white academies while about 50 percent of blacks were unable to find a school near them and had to enlist in the military.
Despite her trauma — or perhaps because of it — Brown-Trickey became a social activist and staunch supporter of the philosophy of nonviolence. She also earned a bachelor’s degree in social work in native human services from Laurentian University, then a master’s degree in social work from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
Her activism includes work in diversity education and training, environmental issues, peacemaking and social justice advocacy. Brown-Trickey also has received many awards for her work, such as a Lifetime Achievement Tribute from the Canadian Race Relations Foundation.
The longtime activist and mother of six has made numerous visits to Youngstown, where she has been part of Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past’s annual Nonviolence Parade and Rally. She also has used the occasions to pursue one of her favorite public activities: speaking to and encouraging young people to learn their history and realize they have the power to make a difference in their communities and in the world.
She also speaks against the corrosive effects of racism, which she called “a learned behavior and designed to keep certain people in power.”
Most recently, Brown-Trickey was at a three-day event late last month in Little Rock to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the school desegregation. In addition, nearby Park Street was renamed Little Rock Nine Way in their honor.