Minniejean Brown

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(Host) Recently, commentator Willi Coleman came face to face with a personal hero – someone about whom she’d like us all to know more.

(Coleman) A few weeks ago I shook hands with — actually hugged — a piece of American history, a slice of women’s history. I am still slightly in awe. I’ve actually been in the presence of Minniejean Brown — now Mrs. Minniejean Brown Trickney, a woman of grandmotherly years but always and forever more a high school student, one of American’s “Little Rock Nine.”

In 1957 a 16 year old Minniejean, along with 8 other Black students, stood in the breach of a fractured and ragged gap separating men who remain the stars in the staging and retelling of America’s history.

Entering stage right was the governor of the state of Arkansas. Under the banner of states’ rights and the threat of bringing in National Guard troops, Orvil Faubus was the voice “protecting and defending” the separation of school children on the basis of race.

At the other end of this drama was President Eisenhower, armed with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling declaring racial separation in America’s schools unconstitutional. Amid the laws, lawyers and politicians, someone had to force the issue to see which side would actually blink first.

Nine Black students bore the brunt of what it takes to change the course of a nation. They attempted to become students at Central High School. Eleven-thousand, five-hundred soldiers were called upon to safeguard nine high school students, six of whom were young women.

Once past the troops, the press and the fury of an unrelenting mob, these students began their first year in high school. They endured taunts, oceans of spit and other endless forms of creative humiliation from other students — most of which remained unacknowledged and unchecked by adults.

By the end of the school year these young people had modeled for this nation and demonstrated to the world what it takes to make real the ideas and ideals embedded in the U.S. Constitution.

In real life Minniejean Brown did not simply fade from the scene after taking a stand at Little Rock High School. She became a member of the nonviolent student movement, took a stance against the war in Viet Nam, moved to Canada, became a farmer, a wife and the mother of six children. She also earned a Master’s Degree in Social Work, became involved in Environmental Issues and the fight for the rights of Native Peoples. In 1999 Minniejean Brown Trickney returned to the U.S. to serve as the Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Department of the Interior in the Clinton Administration.

As I stood in the presence of this quiet,determined Black woman, I was reminded of the unpaid debt that’s still owed to women like her. Positioned astride multiple issues, women of color have never considered themselves too poor, too dark, too foreign nor too burdened by the weight of gender to absent themselves from the fray. These brown, black, red and yellow women are so many beacon lights pointing the way while dragging the rest of us toward the future.

This is Willi Coleman in South Burlington.

Willi Coleman teaches history at UVM and works in multicultural affairs.

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