For the first 15 years of her life, Minnijean Brown-Trickey had a pleasant view of the world.
That changed on a September day in 1957 when Brown-Trickey joined eight fellow Black students and enrolled at a previously all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Ark.
“On that date, I had a major transformation,” Brown-Trickey said. “I lost my innocence because I’d never experienced hate. I saw people behaving as if they were monsters. You shouldn’t come of age so quickly in one day, but I think that was what happened.”
At the time, Brown-Trickey didn’t understand why 270 soldiers of the Arkansas National Guard had blocked her and her classmates from the school’s entrance that day. She didn’t realize that simply attending a new school would serve as a powerful symbol in the ongoing struggle nationwide to desegregate public schools.
The group, which was labeled the “Little Rock Nine,” became an international news story and is now remembered as one of the pivotal turning points in the civil rights movement. But Brown-Trickey’s own journey during that year was about more than school segregation.
Brown-Trickey also showed what it meant to be a confident Black woman in the face of hate-filled verbal and physical abuse.
After months of bullying from her white classmates, Brown-Trickey stood up for herself and retaliated against the torment. She was suspended and eventually expelled from the school in February 1958, making her the lone member of the Little Rock Nine not to finish the school year at Central High School.
“If you know anything about me, you know I was considered a troublemaker at Central, which is totally not true,” Brown-Trickey said. “But I was tall, beautiful, and proud, and they couldn’t handle that.”
Brown-Trickey, who finished 11th- and 12-grades at a school in Manhattan, N.Y., has made it her life’s mission to take the difficult moments from the 1957-58 school year and use it for good as a social activist.
“Transforming pain into power,” she said.
As we celebrate Women’s History Month, Brown-Trickey is honored to serve as an important female figure for younger generations. But whenever she speaks to students, she makes sure to remind them that she is no more important than any of them.
“Ordinary people can do extraordinary things,” Brown-Trickey said. “When I’m talking to kids, my whole thing is, ‘Look, don’t think I’m special because I’m not. I took a step, which just turned into something else, and I didn’t know it was going to do that. So take that step and see what happens.’”
To hear more from Brown-Trickey, watch her recent chat with Gradient Learning, the nonprofit that oversees the Summit Learning program.