213-A Leaders on last year’s pilgrimage to Birmingham, Alabama.
By Madison Sellers
On Tuesday, September 22nd, the 213-A Leaders hosted a virtual conversation with Minnijean Brown-Trickey, and her daughter, Spirit Tawfiq, to discuss Brown-Trickey’s legacy and its lasting impact on both her daughter’s life and the nation.
The 213-A Leaders program was launched in the fall of 2019, honoring the legacy of Houston Roberson, Sewanee’s first tenured African-American professor. “In his honor, and in his name, 213-A provides students from diverse backgrounds with a platform for rigorous educational advancement, professional preparation, and deep exploration of their personal commitment to civic action and social justice,” says Karen Proctor, founder and principal of Harbour Workshop LLC, a social innovation firm, and special assistant to the provost at the University. “It’s a program that cultivates leaders who are able to drive positive change in their lives and in the world.”
Roberson’s legacy of using history to inspire students influences a critical component of 213-A, the pilgrimage. Proctor says, “We define the pilgrimage as a sacred journey that grounds participants in civil rights and social justice history as a way to enlighten and provide guidance for ways to address current issues. We recognize that history matters; it provides important context for our present challenges. And, quite frankly, it humbles us when we consider the sacrifices and courageous acts that paved the way.”
This fall, 213-A has continued the pilgrimage virtually, and, despite hosting conversations with social justice leaders in a virtual setting rather than in-person, Proctor says that “our aim is still the same: to glean from their experiences and their reflections. We’re putting ourselves in sacred spaces with living legends who we are indebted to.”
Klarke Stricklen (C’22), a student leader of 213-A, introduced Brown-Trickey as a deeply driven individual “who began her journey of activism after the Brown v. Board decision and has sought to change the nation through peace and reconciliation, an especially important theme to our University as we continue to reckon with our University’s ties to slavery and its legacies.” She then introduced Tawfiq, describing her story as “one of a continuing legacy that has sought to connect people from all walks of life to the example that her mother set sixty years ago.”
Brown-Trickey’s list of lifetime achievements is extensive. To name a few, she is a member of the Little Rock Nine, the group of nine Black high school students who were the first to integrate education in Arkansas during the Civil Rights Movement. She has received numerous awards for her work in social justice and environmental activism, including the International Wolf Award for contributions to racial harmony, the NAACP Spingarn Medal, and the Congressional Gold Medal, and she served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Workforce Diversity at the Department of Interior under President Clinton. She continues as a teacher, writer, and motivational speaker today.
Her daughter Spirit Tawfiq is the founder of Roots of the Spirit, an organization that Stricklen says was “created to uproot racism through storytelling, education, and the arts.” She has experience working for the National Parks Service at the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site. As a professional speaker and playwright, she writes, speaks, and hosts workshops about social justice and her experience as the daughter of Brown-Trickey.
Tawfiq began the conversation by asking Brown-Trickey about her childhood. Brown-Trickey was born and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1941, and she discussed the impact her twelve aunts and uncles had on her identity by giving her so much love. “It was a segregated society, so I think the black community made sure we had good lives and interesting lives,” she said of her childhood, “even in the situation of a Jim Crow South.” She remembered the nurturing environment of the Black community she grew up in, that it was “like a bubble” protecting her from the reality of racism in the South.
One significant moment she remembered from a couple years prior to her first day at Central High was August 28, 1955, the date of Emmett Till’s murder. She remembered seeing the picture of Till’s body in the Black magazine Jet: “That was before we saw violence on TV or anything, so we weren’t desensitized to violence. And that was the most shocking thing.”
Brown-Trickey and Till were both fourteen years old at the time of Till’s death. “Emmett Till’s lynching was my coming of age moment,” she stated.
She said that there was resistance among the Black community in the Jim Crow South “in all these really subtle ways.” “But I wasn’t without encouragement,” she added. “There was this real effort to keep us happy, and I’m grateful for that. I didn’t feel any inferiority ever, not then or now.”
She continued, though, that on September 3rd, 1957, the first day she attempted to enter Little Rock Central High School, was the day that bubble of protection popped.
“And the reason was, I had always been protected and taken care of, and suddenly I find out that people hate me for no reason. I was just shocked beyond belief,” she said. “Should I have been shocked, should I have thought that people would hate me, and threaten to kill me, and call and say they were going to kill my little brother who was three, who answered the phone? Could I have anticipated that? I couldn’t have. So I think innocence is probably a really good thing. My bubble only burst when I was fifteen.”
She enrolled as a student at Central High three years after Brown v. Board of Education; during those three years, the state of Arkansas had essentially ignored the court’s ruling to desegregate schools. She recalled hearing Governor of Arkansas Orval Faubus’s response to the idea of integrating Arkansas schools: “I didn’t think that he made it clear what was happening. He said that blood would run in the streets if integration happened. To me, it was kind of unclear, whose blood and what streets. So he put the Arkansas National Guard around the school, and we were told not to come on the first day, and to come without our parents.”
As she approached the school with three other students, escorted by four church ministers, she heard a noise that sounded like “a really horrible sports event.” “People were hanging effigies from trees. The Guard was all around the school, and we walked close, and they just wouldn’t let us through. But they would move to let white kids through,” she said. “I was very shocked, and I was very scared.”
The National Guard remained in place outside Central High until September 20th, when a court ruled their presence unconstitutional. On September 23rd, the nine students were escorted to the school by police, and they were met with a mob of over one thousand whites blocking their way.
Tawfiq had once interviewed a police officer who helped escort the nine students that day, and she recalled how he had described that day as “one of the most frightening days of his career.” She continued, “That was seared in me. And I just thought about how frightening that must have been. If it was that frightening for him, then what about the children in the car?”
Once she made it inside the school, Brown-Trickey described her experience as “American terrorism at its finest.”
“We’ll say that there were twenty nice kids, so each of us had two kids who would smile and speak to us, about two hundred really horrible and mean kids, and then eighteen hundred silent witnesses, those who stood by and said nothing. It’s a perfect story for how we are in our society, in our lives,” she said. “We can either be one of the kids who was nice, we can be one of the mean kids, or we can be silent. For me, really, it’s the silence that’s the most powerful.”
“Let me just tell you—the worse they behaved, the more determined I became,” she affirmed.
In December of 1957, Brown-Trickey was suspended as a result of what she calls “the chili incident.” Some boys sitting at a lunch table pushed their chairs into her as she walked past, causing her to drop her chili onto two of them. She was allowed to return to Central High, but in February of 1958, another incident led to her expulsion. A group of five girls hit her in the head with a purse covered in combination locks, and she responded by calling them “white trash.”
Tawfiq mentioned that, “though you were expelled for your actions of calling the girl white trash, you have said very proudly that you were expelled for being tall, beautiful, and proud.” “Totally,” Brown-Trickey responded. “No other reason.” She recalled listening to accounts of white students who said that they were so cruel to her “because she walked the halls of Central like she belonged there.”
“I know it’s very difficult to walk back through the halls of Central, to even recall it in this moment,” said Tawfiq. “I think it’s very important, because I can feel your raw emotion, I think it’s important for us to see the impact of racism, and the longevity, and the trauma.”
Brown-Trickey responded, “Even at 79, I’m still trying to learn, figure out, examine, interrogate that whole situation. I’m still working on it. You can’t really talk about it without going back there. It affects me differently at different times… sometimes it just rises up.”
Through the Sewanee Literary Society, a component of the 213-A Leaders program, 213-A wrote a letter to Brown-Trickey thanking her for her work and discussing the racial history of the University of the South, which “was founded in 1856 with the distinct purpose of protecting and promoting the moral aptitude and rectitude of a slaveholding society.”
The letter reads on: “We are an instrumental part of radically transforming the narrative and stereotype of the so-called Sewanee Student—the heterosexual, privileged, white southern Episcopalian… Our presence demands that as an institution we move to change our campus culture not only to stop enabling such a student but also to work at an inclusive campus that nurtures the religious, racial, sexual, financial, and cultural diversity of the student body.”
According to its website, the Sewanee Literary Society is “a literary collaborative working to foster and deepen the intellectual pursuits of its members through literacy.” Karen Proctor and Nicky Hamilton, the University’s Director of Community Development, are the directors of 213-A, and they work with the leaders of the Sewanee Literary Society (SLS), Staff Mentor Hellen Wainaina and Consultant Scholar and Advisor Dr. Gholdy Muhammad, to emphasize the importance of reading, writing, and thinking critically around history and social justice.
After classes transitioned to remote learning in the spring, SLS launched three writing campaigns to highlight the voices of BIPOC students: Pen for Justice, which includes reflections on the Black Lives Matter Movement; Dear Seniors, which includes letters to the Class of 2020; and Dispatches of Hope, which includes messages of hope and solidarity regarding the pandemic.
Students can check out the Our Lineage page of the website for more information about Sewanee’s history during the Civil Rights Movement, and they can also follow the SLS’s new Instagram page, @sewaneeliterarysociety, for updates and information about upcoming events.
It’s critically important to lift up the voices and honor the experiences of our BIPOC peers, especially as the Black Lives Matter Movement continues, as we reflect on the University’s history, and as we confront the racial discrimination that continues on campus today. Looking to past leaders in social justice for guidance can inspire current leaders to continue striving for progress, on and off campus.
213-A’s letter to Ms. Minnijean Brown-Trickey concludes by expressing gratitude for her role as a leader in social justice, and it offers hope to students looking to continue her mission as the nation moves forward. It reads, “Thank you for your resilience; for giving us hope; for leading by example; and for being an exemplary student and teacher. Thank you for the sacrifices, for bearing the weight of our futures before we arrived, and for saying courageously and loudly, ‘I belong.’”