Civil rights pioneer Minnijean Brown Trickey was one of nine African-American students known as the ‘Little Rock Nine,’ who broke the color barrier at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957.
Trickey made history when she was only fifteen years old. Just like any new student, Trickey was excited about high school and looked forward to making friends, going to dances and many more. But on her first day, she had to face down the Arkansas National Guard who blocked her entrance to the building.
There was also the angry white mob around the school. She was mocked, ridiculed and physically battered. On September 25, 1957, she and eight other African-American students had to fight back against an angry mob to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus had called in the National Guard to keep the African-American students from entering the school. When the nine students got into the building, a riot broke out and they had to escape in speeding police cars.
They weren’t able to enroll until two days later when President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in 1,200 paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division. “With bayonets fixed, the soldiers escorted the students, single file, into the school and disbursed the jeering protestors,” according to Smithsonian.
Troops did remain at Central High School throughout the school year yet the Little Rock Nine were verbally and physically assaulted. They were isolated and never placed in classes with each other. Trickey said that on three separate occasions, white abusers spilled cafeteria food on her but they were never punished.
In December 1957, following a confrontation with two boys in the cafeteria, Trickey was suspended for six days.
In February the following year, she was sacked from the school after verbally responding to some jeering girls who had hit her in the head with a purse. She left Little Rock and her family to finish high school.
Recounting her experience nearly sixty years later, Trickey said: “At a certain point, I didn’t know if I would be alive to graduate from high school, or be stark, raving insane, or deeply wounded”.
That experience would be the beginning of Trickey’s path on social and political activism. She’s fought for minority rights and environmental justice. She’s urged others to fight against social, economic and racial injustice.
In 2016, the 74-year-old activist and social worker donated more than 20 personal items to the National Museum of American History to help tell the story of the Little Rock Nine as she and her fellow African-American students at Central High came to be known.
Today, her story and personal items, including a notice of suspension and the dress she designed for her high school graduation, are archived and on display in the “American Stories” gallery at the Smithsonian museum.
“The desegregation pioneer was assured that her story and that of the Little Rock Nine would be preserved for future generations not as African-American History but as American History,” the museum said the donation.
Born to Willie Brown, a mason and landscaping contractor, and his wife, Imogene, a nurse’s aide and seamstress, Trickey was the eldest of four children. She attended segregated schools and started senior high school as a 10th grader in 1956 at the newly opened Horace Mann School for African-Americans.
Following the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education banning racial segregation in public schools, Trickey heard an announcement on the school intercom about enrolling at Central and decided to sign up.
Despite threats and warnings from segregationist groups as well as disapproval from the then Arkansas Governor Faubus, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was able to select nine black students for enrolment to Little Rock Central High School.
On September 4, 1957, after several attempts by the governor to prevent integration, Trickey and her colleagues, namely Gloria Ray Karlmark, Elizabeth Eckford, Terrence Roberts, Melba Pattillo Beals, Ernest Green, Carlotta Walls LaNier, and Jefferson Thomas, made their way to report to the school, braving the racial chaos to make history.
Trickey would later attend the New Lincoln School, a progressive, experimental K-12 school that focused on the arts, to finish out her 11th- and 12th-grade years. She went on to attend Southern Illinois University and majored in journalism.
She married Roy Trickey, a fisheries biologist in 1967 and they moved to Canada where she earned both a bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in social work. She returned to the United States later and served in the Clinton administration as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Workforce Diversity at the Department of the Interior.
Years after the Little Rock Nine incident, seven of them appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 1996 and reconciled with some of the white students who had tormented them. Members of the Little Rock Nine were also awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999 by then-President Bill Clinton.
In 2005, individual statutes of the Little Rock Nine were placed on the grounds of the Arkansas Capitol. President Barack Obama also invited all nine and their families to his inauguration in 2008.
In 2018, Trickey was the keynote speaker at the 36th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration hosted by Johns Hopkins Medicine.