Painful past comes alive for Valley students on Sojourn

MONTGOMERY, Alabama — After touching and connecting with the names of 40 civil rights martyrs on an outdoor memorial, Juliauna Sagnimeni found the words to describe her experience hard to come by.

“This trip opens your eyes”, the Howland High School junior said Friday. “It’s given me a better perspective on everything. It’s hard to put into words, but it’s definitely had an impact.”

Sagnimeni found herself trying to process the emotional impact of having connected to the 40 people who ranged in age from 11 to 67 who were killed during the 1950s and 1960s in the struggle for freedom and greater equality.

The memorial, which opened in 1989 and was designed by Maya Lin, and nearby museums are in the shadow of the state capital and Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached from 1954 to 1960. The experience also is part of several Youngstown area high school students’ eight-day Sojourn to the Past traveling American history journey through the South.

The group returns home late Wednesday.

Sagnimeni said the name on the memorial she perhaps bonded most closely with was that of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was brutally murdered Aug. 28, 1955, in Money, Mississippi, after he had wolf whistled at Carolyn Bryant, who co-owned Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market in the tiny Delta town.

“I don’t understand how a human being can do that to another human being,” said Sagnimeni, who also praised his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, for displaying the courage to have her son’s mutilated body in an open casket in Chicago in an effort to show the world the devastating effects of racism and hate.

Sagnimeni, who works at Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers restaurant, also intends to see the 2023 Chinonye Chukwu film “Till,” she said.

Another emotional component of the journey for her and other students from the Mahoning Valley and San Francisco Bay area was slowly and silently rotating around the memorial that contains the names of those whose lives were taken, along with key events related to the movement such as the nine students who in September 1957 integrated the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. They famously became known as “The Little Rock Nine.”

One of the nine students who met Sagnimeni and the others Thursday in Montgomery was Minnijean Brown Trickey, who also has been to Youngstown on several occasions, especially during Nonviolence Week the first week of October.

Brown Trickey’s interactions with the students left an indelible mark on Nevaeh Williams, a Valley Christian School 11th-grader.

“I admired her for being nonviolent, and she didn’t let them degrade her to a certain extent,” Williams said, referring to the constant harassment and, some say, terrorist acts she faced once enrolled at the enormous 2-square-block school. “Nobody should be treated like that based on the color of her skin.”

Brown Trickey, 82, faced a continual struggle to get along in school and remain nonviolent, something that was nearly impossible for Williams to fathom, she added.

The Valley Christian junior said having met and heard the story of Brown Trickey fortified her commitment to become more proactive in speaking up and not being on the sidelines when she sees a wrong being committed. In addition, Williams intends to follow suit if she hears friends or others at her school using derogatory language, she continued.

During her time with the students and adults on the journey, Brown Trickey reflected on her time at Central High, as well as having the Louisville, Kentucky-based 101st Airborne protect her. President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent the federal troops to the school after Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus had failed to integrate the school more than three years after the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Brown Trickey, who was expelled from Central High in February 1958 for calling a student who attacked her “white trash,” graduated in June 1959 from the New Lincoln School, a private and progressive school in New York City. She attended Southern Illinois University to major in journalism and later moved to Canada with her then husband, Roy, a biologist and conscientious objector to the Vietnam War whom she had married Sept. 21, 1967. Brown Trickey also earned a degree in native human services from Laurentian University and a master’s degree in social work from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

Brown Trickey told the audience of students, educators and others that her mistreatment at Central High, as well as that of the other eight blacks, steeled her resolve to not treat others in such a manner.

“I would not hate people. I’m seriously a nonviolence freak,” she said, adding, “They didn’t know me; how could they hate me? They threw away their dignity and it landed on us.”

Brown Trickey, who’s also a social and environmental activist, lamented that even though her trials and tribulations based on racism, ignorance and hate occurred nearly 67 years ago, too many parallels between that time and 2024 remain. She drew a connection between the angry mob that tried to keep the black students out of the school and the violent and deadly Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

“When I wake up in the morning, I’m not sure if I’m in 2024 or 1957. I can’t tell the difference,” she said.

The civil rights icon also noted that racism is always taught, with fear and what she calls “profound intentional ignorance” at its root.

“People (today) are living in silos of ignorance,” she added.

Brown Trickey also blasted what she strongly feels are intentional and misguided efforts by many in power to keep people from gaining knowledge about the U.S. that others view as a threat to the entrenched white power structure.

Nevertheless, she urged the students to know they hold the power to make drastically needed changes in their schools, communities and country.

“To act is to speak; to not act is to speak,” Brown Trickey said, quoting Deitrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologist, pastor and anti-Nazi dissident.

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