A member of the Little Rock Nine shares her memories
During my internship at the museum, I had the immense pleasure of working with a collection of objects donated by Minnijean Brown Trickey. Minnijean was a member of the Little Rock Nine, a group of African American students at the forefront of integrating public schools in Little Rock, Arkansas.
In an oral history interview, Minnijean told us that the biggest take away she wanted people to have from her story is that she and the rest of the Little Rock Nine were children. They didn't intend to be civil rights activists; they just wanted the best education they could get. Working with and researching materials from Minnijean's school years brought this realization to life for me and gave me a new appreciation for the bravery of African American students during the integration of American schools. I am excited to share some of my research and highlight a few items from the collection.
Local NAACP activists selected students to volunteer to integrate the historically white Little Rock Central High School. The activists sought out students with good academic backgrounds who they felt could stand up to the pressure of integrating the school.
Minnijean and her fellow classmates enrolled in September 1957. Initially, they were barred from entering the school by an angry mob and the Arkansas National Guard. This incident became known as the Little Rock Integration Crisis. The students finally entered the school for their first day of classes on September 25, 1957. Despite being assigned guards, the students were continually harassed throughout the 1957–1958 school year; harassment by the white students was ignored by school administration, and any response from the Little Rock Nine students to this constant abuse was viewed harshly and punished. While attending Central High School, Minnijean was suspended in December 1957 when she poured chili on a boy who tripped her. She was later expelled in February 1958 for calling a girl who verbally and physically assaulted her “white trash.”
After Minnijean was suspended from Little Rock Central High School, her parents sent a letter to the Little Rock School Board on behalf of their daughter to appeal her expulsion. The letter states that the attacks against Minnijean were not occasional incidents, but a concentrated effort to have her expelled from the school and that she was only defending herself in light of a lack of support from school officials. However, their appeal was unsuccessful and Minnijean's expulsion was upheld.
After expulsion, Minnijean moved to New York City to attend a different high school, and later graduated in 1959.
The Little Rock Nine's struggle continued long after the Little Rock Integration Crisis was believed to have ended. Once the National Guard left and the media coverage lessened, the students were left to fend for themselves. They were expected to silently bear the verbal and physical assaults they faced. This mandate forced the members of the Little Rock Nine to exhibit a great deal of maturity for their age and left them feeling very alone and insecure.
The above letter from President Dwight D. Eisenhower was written to Mr. and Mrs. W. B. Brown, Minnijean’s parents. The letter reads "Dear Mr. and Mrs. Brown: Thank you very much for your message. I deeply appreciate your prayers and good wishes. Sincerely, Dwight D. Eisenhower." The letter, written November 30, 1957, is part of a large body of correspondence between the two parties regarding the family’s involvement in the Little Rock Integration Crisis. President Eisenhower likely signed the letter himself, rather than having a secretary or autopen sign for him. The fact that President Eisenhower took the time to personally correspond with the families of the Little Rock Nine indicates the importance of the students' struggle. Although many scholars believe that Eisenhower was ambivalent about desegregation, the fact that he took time to personally write to the families shows the issue was important to him.
The Soul of Humanity award was presented to Minnijean Brown Trickey on September 25, 2012, by the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, for her role in desegregating Little Rock Central High School as a member of the Little Rock Nine. The award is inscribed with the quote "May you rise to life bewildering change with conviction and moral courage." The award is a beautiful reminder of young Minnijean’s bravery during the school year she spent at Little Rock Central High School. The quote is particularly poignant when considering that she was a just teenager while making history: "life bewildering change" describes the Little Rock Integration Crisis from the perspective of the students involved. They were children who went to school every day feeling afraid and confused as to why they were attacked and ostracized by fellow classmates.
The materials from Minnijean Brown Trickey's donation paint a picture of brave, young individuals who faced "life bewildering change" head-on through perseverance and courage. Hopefully, this collection will inspire students to carry on their legacy to move beyond racial barriers to an era of equality and understanding.
A selection of the 20 objects donated by Brown Trickey, will be on display in American Stories beginning February 8, 2016.
Keila Rone is a graduate student in the George Washington University's M.A. Museum Studies Program. She worked as an intern in the Division of Home and Community Life with Debbie Schaefer-Jacobs, a curator who is currently searching for school-related material culture donations that represent the variety of educational environments that occurred throughout the United States history. Contact the Division of Home and Community Life via our website if you have materials you would be interested in donating.