series-feature

SHERLOCK ON MASTERPIECE
The Abominable Bride

 

Why is Thomas Ricoletti surprised to see his wife dressed in her old wedding gown? Because, just a few hours before, she took her own life and now her ghost appears to be prowling the streets with a thirst for revenge. Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman) return in this modern retelling of the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, but this time out, the two find themselves in 1890s London.

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Daniel Martinez

 

As Chief Historian at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, Daniel Martinez has heard the stories from the survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and shares those stories with Park visitors.  In this conversation with Leslie Wilcox, you’ll hear how his connection with that infamous event goes deeper than his role as an historian.

 

Daniel Martinez Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

When we were on these trips back East, with my dad being in the space industry, we stopped at Gettysburg. And this park ranger came out with his Smokey the Bear hat. This park ranger gave a talk, and then he went in and he got in a Civil War uniform and came out with a musket, and fired it. And I said, That’s for me.

 

So, you truly intended to do that when you grew up?

 

I just said, That’s for me, but I didn’t know how I was gonna get there. But that whole idea of working in a national park like Gettysburg, it was just like, How do I do this?

 

Daniel Marinez has been captivated by military history since childhood, and he followed his passion. Today, he’s Chief Historian at the World War II Valor In the Pacific National Monument, which preserves and interprets the stories of the Pacific war, including the events at Pearl Harbor. Daniel Martinez, next on Long Story Short.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawai‘i’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.

 

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Daniel Martinez has been the Chief Historian at Pearl Harbor since 1989, where he keeps history alive for the many visitors from around the world who come to see where World War II began for America. History has always been an important part of Daniel’s life, starting from his youth growing up in California. His German and Mexican grandparents shared stories of their lives, which started him on the path that would later lead him to become an historian.

 

Oh; without a doubt, my grandfather. My grandfather taught me how to fish, and I found out he was at Pearl Harbor, and he had this interest in the American West, and he was a miner. On my grandfather and grandmother’s side, in particular on my grandmother’s side, they grew up in Boise, Idaho, they were first immigrants to come in the late 1870s, became gold miners. And then later, one was a sheriff. And so, we had all of that. So, on both sides of the family. My father’s was more humble. My grandfather came from Mexico, from the area of Guadalajara, and emigrated here legally through the Southern Pacific Railroad. He was one of the workers. And that’s how my dad ended up being born in Lone Pine, California, one of nine children. And my love for railroad and that history, especially I’m a big Southern Pacific fan, came from that. And then, my dad was in the Navy, and my dad served in the Korean War. My Aunt Jo was the first one on my mother’s side to take me to a library when I was five years old, and picked up my first book, which was Custer’s Last Stand. There were always these influences on reading and going to places where events happened.

 

When you say, you know, history really imbued your family, you had a sense of that, did you say that to yourself? You know, history is important to me. Or was that not a known specialization or concept?

 

If my mom was alive, she’d probably have more of a description of it. Because when I was little, I had toy soldiers, and I would recreate battles. I would read books, I would be actively involved in watching films on history. I think it was just something that was instinctively there, and thank God my family endorsed it, and not only that, took me to a number of historic places that were like these deviations off the road. And so, I don’t know; I think my rudder was fixed, and I was headed that way.

 

You know, you’re cross-cultural; Mexican, German.

 

Yeah; and know, the difficult part was that I didn’t realize this, because even I grew up in a world that was not as judgmental. And here in Hawai‘i, even less. But it was called interracial marriage. And that’s what my parents’ marriage was, and they ran off and got married.

 

Because their family wouldn’t support the match?

 

Oh, no; on both sides. You know, my grandfather on the Mexican side was hoping that my dad was gonna marry a Mexican girl, and I know for a fact on my mother’s side, they wished the same. But love overcomes a lot, and they ran off and got married. And then, when I came along, all was forgiven, and the families were joined. And so, my grandfather, who was so opposed to this on my mom’s side, became so close to my dad that he was like a second father.

 

Did you ever have the sensation of having to pick one, you know, racial background over the other?

 

You know, I didn’t have a choice; the last name was Martinez. And I went to a Catholic high school and I went through a little bit of hazing of that. And I had a cousin named Paul Gomez, who was a scholar and a great guy, and he just said, Hey, just roll with it. Just roll with it; don’t be upset over it, just be proud of it. And I always have been. And when I came to Hawai‘i, one of the things that touched me a great deal was the acceptance of peoples here.

 

People always want to know what you are, even if they’re not prejudiced against you.

 

Right.

 

They want to know.

 

I tell them I’m sort of—

 

You’re hapa.

 

Hapa; you know, and then they get that. And so, I’m very proud of our German-English background, especially what my uh, grandparents on that side did.

 

When your grandfather moved to Hawai‘i, why? He was a miner.

 

Yeah; the thing was that there was a company, a big company, and everybody knew it at the time, called Morrison-Knudsen. And it was located in Boise, Idaho. And they were rounding up all of these miners and construction workers. They had been given contracts to build military bases throughout the Pacific; Wake Island, Midway, all over. My grandfather was in his thirties at the time, so he was relatively mature. And he had just remarried, and he saw this opportunity, so they wanted this work. They needed tunnelers, they needed people that knew how to work with dynamite; my grandfather.

What they were going to build was twenty of these that are basically twenty stories deep as well. And I forget the circumference, but it’s close to seventy-five yards in circumference. And these tanks were gonna be literally blasted out of the lava rock on Red Hill, and then they would use like an iron basket around it, and then gunnite that, and then use cement and build it. Now, they built these things, you know, kind of bottom up, and many men fell. And when you fall in there, even despite there’s water, it doesn’t come out well when you’re falling eight or nine stories. you know, over two hundred feet. And so, my grandfather worked on that, and then my mother came over in ’41, early ’41, went to school, living the dream as I say. That’s what I often say, living the dream here in Hawai‘i. And then, you know, went to school.

 

Wait a minute. Going back to those storage tanks. So, your father is working with people who are dying.

 

Yes; this whole thing that they were doing was secret. They tried to keep it as secret as possible. I don’t know how they did that, but they just didn’t want people talking about it.

 

But there was dynamite going off in Red Hill.

 

Yeah; but it was like a rumble, ‘cause it’s underneath the ground. And they were taking all the tailings, and they were not pulling them out of there; they were spilling them into the valley there. And you can still see some of those tailings where cement factory is now today.

 

So, he would go back, and he couldn’t even tell your grandmother.

 

He’d just say they were doing tunneling.

 

Was he there throughout the entire twenty tanks?

 

Yes, he was. Yeah.

 

How long did that take?

 

It took almost ‘til 1944. And you see, my family, my mom and her sisters, a baby and my Aunt Janelle [PHONETIC], who went to Roosevelt High School, they were sent back on, I think, the Mariposa, and went back to San Francisco. From there, they went back to Boise and waited, and then my grandfather returned and he needed to find work, and he knew that the war effort needed talc, and he knew where talc was. And so, he went there, and he established his family there, and opened a talc mine in the White Mountains. And my mom went to Lone Pine High School, and met one Rudy Martinez.

 

For the next six years after he graduated from college, Daniel Martinez taught high school in the winter, and during the summer he worked for the National Parks Service as a seasonal ranger at the Little Big Horn Battlefield. The Parks Service offered him a fulltime position at the USS Arizona Memorial, which he readily accepted. Although his grandparents had told him stories about living in Hawai‘i during the war, he was unprepared for what awaited him.

 

Although I lived in California, my friends used to go to Hawai‘i in the summers, I never did. And I came here for the first time, you know, in 1985 with fourteen boxes and my girlfriend. And we were there at the airport, and we didn’t know what we were in for. But it was quite an experience adjusting to Hawai‘i. Because there wasn’t a lot of stores that we have now, and it was expensive, and I was very low grade. So, we worked some little second jobs, and things like that, to make it, make my way through.

 

Where did you live when you first arrived?

 

I lived in Aiea. And I lived right above the high school, and I didn’t have a car then, so I walked to work, and then later got established, and life changed and evolved. And I was adopted, ‘cause my girlfriend couldn’t hack it; she went home. I came home, and I had like a Dear John letter. And the family that I stayed with, I lived on the lower end of of a home. So, it was like a little ohana. And they were just really, you know, shocked that I had a Dear John, and they were so consoling. But I couldn’t afford it anymore, so Clinton Kane, who was a park ranger at the memorial, said, Come with me. And he took care of me, and I ended up living in Waimanalo with another Japanese American fellow who worked for Hawaiian Tel. And I learned to be Hawaiian. I ate food that I thought I could never eat, did things that I never thought I could do. I learned how to body board at Makapuu. And that was … thrilling. [CHUCKLE]

 

And the food teaches you a lot about history of the islands, too.

 

It does. I never quite caught onto opihi, but I gave it a good attempt. But I started to fall in love with some of the Hawaiian foods. And if I can digress, a simple story of this kind of generosity and culture here that was unknown to me was that, where we lived, we lived close to the mountain in Waimanalo. So, when it rained, the roof was metal, and it was just a racket. But you get used to it. And then, when we would go fishing or anything, the fish that we got, we would drop off to some of the neighbors who had their farms there. And the next day, there would be vegetables or fruits left there. And it just the kind of warmth and generosity that … didn’t see that in Los Angeles.

 

When you said your girlfriend couldn’t hack it, did you consider saying, Okay, this is really complex for me and I don’t think I’m gonna do it?

 

No; ‘cause I had fallen in love with the story of the USS Arizona Memorial, and the fact that both sides of my family were at Pearl Harbor. And I had fallen in love with the ethics of the National Parks Service. There was just no turning back for me. And I was told that if I wanted to be a permanent ranger, because I had come here for that reason, that I needed to go to the law enforcement academy. And I did so; I left here, I went to Santa Rosa, California and went to the sheriff’s academy there and became a law enforcement ranger for the National Parks Service. And on the day of graduation, I got a call from the chief ranger, and he hired me. And that was the beginning of that career, and it was one of those magical moments that I had arrived.

 

You know, most times, when people do go into history, it’s with the idea of teaching it. Getting advanced degrees so they can teach it at the college or higher ed level.

 

Right.

 

But that was not your course, and you remained employed in it continuously.

 

Yeah. You know, the bottom line is that we that engage in this, whether we work in a museum or work for the National Parks or State Parks, we’re public historians that have a history field, and we deal with the public. And that in itself defines that we are educators almost at every moment. Because when people come to the national parks, or like to our site, they’re there to experience it, and we’re there to inform and illustrate why the site is important, and how it fit into the national past.

 

And at a place like Pearl Harbor, you get more material that you can vet from listening to people.

 

Right. And we have a story beyond the tragic events of December 7th. Now, we’re a World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument. It includes all of the Pacific war.

 

You know, one of the things I used to love about going to Pearl Harbor, even when I was a young adult, was getting to talk to people, volunteers, who had actually been at Pearl Harbor when the bombing occurred.

 

Yeah.

 

Men who had experienced it. Are there any volunteers now who do that? They must be in their nineties.

 

Yeah, there are. There’s one who was a young man. I believe his name is Robert Lee. He lived right in in at Halawa Landing. His home was on the edge of Pearl Harbor, right there in that kind of Aiea Bay right there, and he watched the attack from his second story, on Battleship Row.

 

Wow.

 

But we’re talking about individuals in their nineties, and that is our fading resource.

 

Because before, the survivors would walk you around briskly.

 

I know; don’t you miss those days?

 

And tell you this, and tell you that. But they must have more limited circumference these days.

 

Well, I was a volunteer and the parks coordinator in 1987, 88. And I had over twenty-five Pearl Harbor survivors that volunteered through the week. And it’s just amazing that we have seen since that time, you know, the passing of a generation. There’s also the other group that’s right here, the civilian eyewitnesses, and those that worked at Pearl Harbor or the airfields, or at home. The biggest connection we made with the civilian community here, and I’m very proud of it because it was a movement to make sure all of the casualties recorded, were the civilian casualties. And at the time, to get those records was very difficult, because they were held by the Health Department here. Mayor Fasi, God bless him, he paved the way for us to get their records. They didn’t want to release them to us. We got all the civilian records, death records.

 

Of the civilians who were killed, I think it came out later that much of that was from friendly fire.

 

Right.

 

Honolulu was defending itself.

 

We found out two things, that it was actually forty-eight civilians. Later, we’d find one more, forty-nine civilians were killed in the attack. Most of them, almost eighty-five, eighty-six percent killed by friendly fire, and the definition of friendly fire, which is a strange term for it, was that as we were firing up at the planes, the shells were either not being fused properly, or faulty, and they were landing all over Honolulu, Waikiki area. And when that happened, many of the people believed they were being bombed. Remember, the planes were still flying over. That’s what my mother remembers; the houses being bombed and it was friendly fire coming down.

 

You know, there are so many myths about Pearl Harbor, including some I grew up with. Some of them were dispelled after I attended school in Hawai‘i. And I know of them was, you know, the Japanese planes didn’t come through Kolekole Pass to get to Pearl Harbor.

 

I know.

 

I thought that for years, and I’d drive by those mountains and think, Oh, that’s right where the planes came in.

 

Yeah.

 

No.

 

That myth had some truth to it. And that’s one of the things I found out in doing some of the research about, was eyewitnesses watching the attack, in particular on Wheeler and Schofield, in that area, saw the planes. But the planes were turning at the base of the mountains, not flying through it. And the Japanese were always kind of, when I interviewed them, Why do they think we would do that? Because the main strike force flew down from Kaena Point, all the way, and turned over Makakilo, and then broke up in their attacks at Hickam and Pearl Harbor, and Ewa. One group came down the center of the island over Haleiwa, and moved up and attacked Wheeler Field, but they circled around. And so, film kind of endorsed that; the book and film From Here to Eternity somewhat endorsed that myth. Then tour guides caught onto it, and then it became part of the story, and they took people out there to Kolekole Pass. Now, the pass itself is historic, but the film Tora! Tora! Tora!, you see them flying right through the pass. So, Hollywood in many, many ways instills and certifies, and embosses some of our myths.

 

So, something that happened all those decades ago is still a moving target in terms of learning about it and memorializing it.

 

I’ll tell you, Leslie; the more you know, the less you know. And that’s been my case. You know, everybody says, Oh, you’re one of the experts on Pearl Harbor. And you know, I think what I could say safely is, I know where to find it, but it’s just an evolution still occurring. So, long after I leave my position, there’ll be someone that will find more history and more angles of that. And that’s been my case. Every time I go to work, there’s going to be something that’s new.

 

Teaching visitors about history is an important part of Daniel Martinez’s job. But there are other aspects of his work that go beyond uncovering new facts and correcting misconceptions. There is the ongoing story of the consequences and the lessons of that even today continue to inform us and affect our lives.

 

One of the things that I’ve been blessed with is, I’m the interment officer for what takes place on the Arizona. To see how the Navy, or in the case if it’s a Marine, how they honor and work with us on that ceremony, and when the families come there, and I take the urn down, and the family members are with me, and then I turn that urn over to the family member that’s appointed by the rest to do that, and then that person gives it to the diver … that is a moment.

 

You’ve gotten to meet so many of the survivors of Pearl Harbor attack. And you know, many have come over the years, some have volunteered here, some have moved here. And you’ve conducted oral history interviews with a lot of them. So, I just wonder; for those who went through those horrific times, I mean, they saw their fellow soldiers and other professionals, they saw such terrible carnage. What were their lives like after surviving this?

 

After the war, no matter what horrific circumstance they went through, whether they witnessed people being killed, or wounded themselves, or nearly killed themselves, they wanted to move on with their lives. Think about it; many of them were young. I did my first oral history with my grandfather, and he agreed to do it, but he wasn’t wild about it. And I couldn’t understand it. So, I started the interview and I had a little recording machine, you know, and microphone. And I get into the whole Pearl Harbor stuff, and he gets up in the interview and walks away. And he said, That’s it, that’s it; that’s all. And my grandmother, you can hear in the background saying, No, no, go back. You know. He got up, I think, three times and walked away. It wasn’t ‘til I started doing oral history interviews on my own in the late 80s that I understood what I was dealing with. He had never told anybody about it. And he had seen a young Hawaiian boy that worked on his crew wounded. He had to dive for cover, because he was in the area of Merry Point Landing. That was ground zero for the torpedo attack; they flew right up that channel. And so, he was seeing things and remembering things that he had not talked about. And as a result, he was reliving it.

 

I see.

 

And I didn’t know that. And so, I couldn’t understand at that time, and it took several years for me to get from the university here that I was going into an area of his remembrance that was extremely difficult, and he was reliving it. And he remembered the Arizona exploding, but he didn’t know it was the Arizona; he just saw a ship explode and the concussion rocked them there. And he remembered that he stayed there as a Navy federal worker, pulling bodies out of Aiea Bay and placing them on the landing in Aiea for identification, and never got over how young the faces were. And he remembered going through a darkened and panicked Downtown Honolulu, and seeing people and behavior that he never had seen before. People were frightened, and they were scared, and they were running lights, and they were driving up to the sidewalks. And he just said it was crazy. And nobody remembers or really talks about that, but it indeed happened. And so, when he got home late at night, we were now under martial law and it was blackout. And they huddled in their home in Kaimuki, like so many others did, not knowing what the next day would bring, sensing there would be Japanese soldiers in their front yard. And that was just the beginning of the martial law experience in Hawai‘i that, fortunately for my family, they were lucky enough to leave, although sadly, and be in a place where there was a lot more freedom. So, for the people of Hawai‘i, I mean, they’re often not really congratulated for their own sustainability and courage and effort in the war effort, just sustaining themselves under martial law. And so, the one thing that my grandfather witnessed that he couldn’t believe also was, and I tell the story now to a lot of visitors, is that after the attack, suddenly the workers that were of Japanese ancestry were being attacked and called names by local people that worked on the project. Which just seems crazy. But it was crazy. And so, it got to such a point there were fights, and the inability for crews to work together, and ethnic groups from Hawai‘i now even that had been their friends were no longer their friends. So, the crews were segregated; there was a Japanese American crew. This went on for several months, and then as feeling subsided—

 

Yeah; fear is a terrible thing. It drives bad behavior.

 

We see it. Yeah; and it drove some bad behavior. But it was one of those untold stories that he mentions on his interview, and in doing so, gave me glimpse of the kind of fear, as you say, sustained itself in the weeks and months after Pearl Harbor.

 

We learn the human experience of history and war through the testimonies of witnesses and survivors. Daniel Martinez’s passion for gathering and perpetuating these stories keeps them alive, so we can heal from the emotional wounds of the past and understand history. Mahalo to Daniel Martinez of Kapolei for teaching us through stories. And mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawai‘i and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org. To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go the Apple iTunes Store or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

I remember we were making a film about Pearl Harbor on September 11, 2001. We were in Washington, D.C., not more than fifteen miles away from the Pentagon. And these suits come in, and he leans over and said, We just got Pearl Harbored in New York. And that’s going on while we’re having …

 

While you are remembering Pearl Harbor.

 

While we’re remembering Pearl Harbor. We were ushered out; we could see the smoke coming up from the Pentagon.

 

Did you stay in the building?

 

They kept us there, and they moved us into the cafeteria lobby area, and we watched the second plane go in. It was profound, because we were scheduled to fly that day on Flight 77, the plane that went into the Pentagon. But the reservation was changed. It’s never been lost on me that I had a second chance in life, and … so, September 11th is, I guess, my touch with a Pearl Harbor-like event.

 

[END]

 

 

THE GREAT BRITISH BAKING SHOW
Christmas Masterclass IV

 

Join judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood as they detail how to make perfect mince pies, Christmas pudding and Christmas cake, and introduce some tasty new treats for the holiday season.

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Minnijean Brown Trickey, Part 2

 

Originally recorded in 2008, this program commemorates the 60th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine. In 1957, nine African American students walked through the doors of the all-white Little Rock Central High in Arkansas and stood against an angry mob in a defining moment for the nation’s civil rights movement. Minnijean Brown Trickey was one of those students, now known as the Little Rock Nine. Trickey, a teacher, writer and lecturer whose life work has been to build understanding and promote freedom and equality, shares details of her story that she doesn’t often tell.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Wednesday, Nov. 29, at 11:00 pm and Sunday, Dec. 3, at 4:00 pm.

 

Minnijean Brown Trickey, Part 2 Audio

 

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Transcript

 

Aloha no! I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaiʻi. Welcome to another Long Story Short. Last week, Minnijean Brown Trickey shared stories from her days as one of The Little Rock Nine – the teenagers who, in 1957, entered the previously all- White Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas watched by armed soldiers, an angry mob and a worldwide audience. Today, in Part Two of our two-part conversation, Minnijean speaks more.

 

I’d like to start by telling you what happened at the end of my conversation with Minnijean Brown Trickey. When the cameras shut down, our technical crew comprised mostly of college students learning high-definition television production applauded. Then they shook her hand and hugged her. Now, our studio is quite chilly. But at that moment, you could feel the warmth, the aloha. You could see it the students’ faces. And I could see it in Minnijean’s smile. She’s sharing living history, speaking with an unmistakably authentic voice.

 

I know you’ve had occasion to talk with folks who live in Hawaiʻi, even though you don’t live here. What are your thoughts about the racial situation here? You know, people like to say we’re a melting pot, but that’s a little optimistic.

 

Yeah. And I worry about sort of platitudes about a given society. The people here know whether they’re a melting pot or not. It has great possibility. And I worry about melting. I worry about having to melt. I think we should be able to work together with our cultural beliefs and world views and ideas. I think we can still work together. We don’t have to give up everything to be able to work together.

 

And do we want a melting pot? I have a friend who says, We should be a big, chunky stew.

 

Absolutely. And that’s what’s beautiful, and that’s what enriches us, and that’s what gives us other information and possibility. And it’s that precise mixture that enriches us all, in my opinion.

 

Minnijean Brown was one of the African-American teenagers to become known as The Little Rock Nine. In 1957, these students enrolled in Little Rock Central High, the largest school in Arkansas’ state capital. The Governor unlawfully and physically kept them from reporting to class by stationing hundreds of National Guard personnel around the school’s perimeter. The President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, sent in troops from the U.S. Army to escort the nine students to school. It was a tumultuous time for our nation and for 16 year-old Minnijean.

 

When I’ve seen clips of all of those confrontations at the school over so long a time, over months, of course, I really felt for the nine children, one of whom was you. But as a parent, I found myself thinking of your parents. I mean, it must have been so hard to let you go, and not know whether you were gonna be truly safe.


 

And we weren’t safe. But the bravery—we are given credit for bravery, but the parents were the brave ones because they followed our lead; because they knew that it was important, not just for us, but for the world. After the first day, seeing all the chaos and violence, we all knew this has to be, it must be. There’s no way of explaining that. But we were together on that. But they always said, You don’t have to go. You don’t have to go today, you don’t have to go tomorrow. Are you sure you want to go?

 

Were you always so sure you wanted to go?

 

Well, I kind of framed it in a way; But Ma, I gotta go, because I gotta see what they’re gonna think up to do to me tomorrow. You know, and so I guess we used different ways of dealing with difficult situations.

 

And none of your schoolmates – none of them dropped out either?

 

We couldn’t; it was just way too important. I admire those children; I just am fascinated by them, what they did, how they did it. And I’m trying to recover some of the ways that made it possible to keep going. But it ends up being sort of, They don’t want me here, I’m coming anyway. And maybe that’s how we have to look at things. And sometimes I don’t want to describe us as brave, ‘cause I’m not sure if we were. We were scared every minute. ‘Cause we got death threats at home. At night, my windows were broken in my bedroom. My father lost his job; other parents lost their jobs. So the terror never really stopped. It just became a test of wills. And now that I’m older, I know, my goodness, we were in such danger. And it makes me shake; now. At the time, my defiance was so powerful that it kept me going. Resistance, I call it. And that’s something we all have.

 

Did your family consider stepping back when your father lost his job?

 

Well, it’s too late, because you’ve already done the deed, you’ve already had the audacity to try to go to Central High School, the bastion of White education. You’ve already blown your thing. Everybody’s angry, people are furious, people are paying you back for having that much uppitiness, I guess, is the way it’s been framed over, you know, three hundred years, that if you dare to think yourself a full person.

 

I know there were angry White mobs; I know there were jeers and insults, and worse by your fellow students, White students. Did you get any pushback from other Blacks?

 

I think initially, I think people weren’t sure. Because I think we have to think there’d been small inroads of integration in small towns and in the South, just few and far between. But I think there was a great hope. I mean, there were two school systems; one superior, one inferior. I think any group of people hopes for that change. I mean, we got old books that were so old that so many pages were missing, and they were from forever ago, and they were dog-eared. And I think young Black kids and families saw the possibility that we would, you know have an equal education, that we would have the same opportunity for education that White kids had. So I mean, when they built a new school, but they didn’t equip the science lab. And they built a new school, and it didn’t have this facility, and the—we were the secondhand kids. And I think people thought that this will stop. So I’m not sure if I remember anybody saying—maybe somebody said, You’ve gotta be crazy to do that. And they were right. [chuckle]

 

I think of your parents. And you know, most parents are hopeful their children do well in the academics, and they don’t, you know, they don’t struggle with how tough the classes are, and they get along with their classmates. But your parents were dealing on an entirely quantum different level of concern.

 

Of course. And if yeah; this is, this is a great conversation, because people don’t ask deep questions often. The whole idea that—and I think a lot of the Civil Rights movement worked this way. That the young people were doing things that the grownups couldn’t do, because in fact, they would lose their jobs. And they didn’t put us there; we put ourselves there and asked them to come with us. There’s a line in a freedom song, I’m on My Way to Freedom Land. And one of the lines; If you don’t go, don’t hinder me. And another line is, If my mama don’t go, I’ll go anyhow. It was about seeing a different vision, and hoping that it wouldn’t stay the same.

 

Minnijean Brown was suspended and expelled from Central High. Out of concern for her safety, she was transferred to a school in New York. She graduated from college and lived for many years in Canada. Now she’s back in Little Rock, Arkansas, where she continues her work as an educator and a crusader for civil rights and the environment. The events of 1957 surely shaped the rest of her life.

 

I got punished for the behavior that they were exhibiting. And it was very unfair. And I knew it was unfair, but it wasn’t shown as unfair. It was, She was a bad girl, she talked back. You know, I should have been perfect. Now, I understand that I needn’t have been perfect to go to Central High School, that those were outrageous expectations. But I was just sixteen; so I didn’t know what I know now.

 

And so there was a lot of learning that took place in those months, but much of it probably wasn’t academic.

 

I don’t remember a single thing. I don’t remember learning anything. I spoke French with a really terrible Southern accent, and when I went to this school in New York, this French teacher, I think I hurt her ears when I spoke French.

 

That’s where you went after you left Arkansas?


 

Yes. So I don’t remember learning any lessons.

 

Except hard knocks.

 

Except how, maybe how we survive in a difficult situation. But I was a bad girl, because I asked the history teacher, Why is it we only have one paragraph on slavery in this one-thousand-page American history book? And that we were all happy? You gotta be bad sometime. [chuckle] But that’s considered bad; that’s considered uppity.

 

And you did that at Little Rock?

 

I did.

 

You didn’t get shut down easily by any means.

 

Well, I’d ask it in a very Southern accent, in a very soft way. But I asked it all the same. And I think all of us did that. That we shouldn’t have had to be grateful to go into that brutal situation. And so one more little thing that I think is interesting, and I hope you have space for it. Someone did a doctoral dissertation on the females, gender issues at Little Rock, and talked to a group of White girls, forty years later. And said, We hated that Minnijean, we hated her; we hated her, we hated her. And he said, Why did you hate her? And they finally concluded, Because she walked the halls of Central High like she belonged there. Wow. Wow.

 

There you go. You were the object of much racism. I would wonder if it tended to make you want to dismiss and hate Whites.


 

Well, I guess I didn’t learn. [chuckle] That wasn’t really what I learned at Central. I learned that people can be used for bad purposes, if they allow. I think the mob was incited by the governor, the kids were acting on beliefs that had been part of our American belief system for a very long time.

 

So you’re giving them an out?

 

I’m not giving them an out, but I am what I’m trying to explain, especially to young people that there are structural things that have created our beliefs and our attitudes, and where we live, and how much money we make, and who’s valued and who isn’t; and that the only way that we can dismantle that is to pay attention. So I also know that as soon as I left Central High School, I forgot all about them, and went into the school that was integrated. I had a great time, I realized all those things about myself, which hadn’t been realized in my life before. I was arrested for sitting in, I’ve been in jail, I was in Mississippi for a time, I was really active at my college. It was an amazing, wonderful, hopeful time. And in that process, we have to work with other people, that not any one group can save the world alone. And I work with everybody, and will hang out with everybody, and will interact with everybody; and have had wonderful opportunities to do so. It’s an educational thing that has to take place everywhere. It has to be in the elementary schools, it has to be in high schools. It definitely has to be in the universities, that there is an obligation; we can’t just have like African American history over there, and mainstream history here, which doesn’t, you know—

 

Right; it’s not boutique.

 

Yeah.

 

It’s not boutique history.

 

You don’t get to shop around; it has to be embedded in all our social relations. How do we get here, and how do we get out?

 

Before what happened at the school, did you push the envelope, did you go drink at the other fountain, or slip into a place you weren’t supposed to be?


 

Well, you can’t really go into a place, ‘cause you’re not allowed. But I would, yes, drink out of the White fountain, or I would sometimes sit in the wrong place on the bus, and promptly get kicked off the bus. The bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama had happened, but people had been doing that all along, because it seemed so ludicrous. It doesn’t make sense; it didn’t make sense then, it doesn’t make sense now.

 

What kind of kid were you? Were you fiery and an activist, or did that activism happen later?

 

Oh, I was—h-m, I’ve never been asked that question. I was concerned about things, and I argued with my parents during the Eisenhower-Stevenson election. And I told them, How can you vote for Eisenhower; you have to vote for Stevenson. Don’t ask me why.

 


But at that time in your school, would you have been voted most likely to …

 

No, not at all.

 

–to break the bounds and be part of a historical case and—

 

No. Absolutely not.

 

Were you quiet?

 

I was, I was a bookie; I read all the time. I thought I could sing, so I would try to sing every once in a while.

 

[chuckle]

 

But I don’t think anybody, I certainly didn’t anticipate that I would be the person I am now. Inside, I thought deeply about things; but outside, I don’t think I expressed it.

 

You’ve moved back to Arkansas, and you have occasion to drive by Central High School. What are the emotions you feel as you go by?

 

Well, I’m really involved, kind of, with Central High School because my daughter is a park ranger with the National Parks Service and she’s teaching me things. She is at a visitor center, so all kinds of people come in. People come in from all over the world; they tell her and the other rangers how Little Rock, the experience affected them fifty years ago, if they’re older. Young people come in and ask questions.

 

And the school and the government never gave you an apology for what happened?

 

Yes, in 1997—

 

Okay; this is many years—

 

I’m not sure—

 

–after the fact.

 

–if it was an apology. But the governor, who was Mike Huckabee, the President was Bill Clinton, and the mayor opened the door symbolically to allow for us to come in. That was very moving.

 


What do you think it is about you that allowed you to get through that as you did, and continue to fight the same battle in other ways, as you moved along?

 

M-m, well, it’s kind of, what—you know, you asked, why did we go to Central. Somebody had to do it. And we just happened to be the ones who did. And somebody’s gotta do all this other stuff too, individually, and collectively. And it keeps me—I work with lots of young people; it keeps me knowing what their issues are, it keeps me on the ground, not being in some kind of tower, not knowing what young people are concerned about. And it enriches me. It inspires me. It just keeps me going. I working with young people is so inspirational to me. And it also invigorates me, and I’m gonna be—I’m sixty-six. I need some of that energy to circle through me.

 

But the disappointments and the hardship you’ve experience along—and the losses in activism haven’t hardened your heart, haven’t made you have a sense of resignation about anything?

 

Well, I think they’ve given me the right to have a sharp tongue, and to challenge complacency and complicity. And I do that when I can. So I feel, both, I have the privilege of being an elder, as well as a Civil Rights person, to transfer from that time to now. Young people are, What is this about? I don’t get it. It doesn’t make sense to me. Why doesn’t this change? Why are we in this state? Why are we so warlike? Why are we so violent? Why do we have the highest prison rate in the world? They’re still—they’re confused, and I’m confused; and we need to have these talks together, and so I continue to be reinvigorated. Sometimes I do get really cynical; I can do a really good cry in my pillow, I don’t hide my feelings anymore. I don’t feel—if I’m talking and somebody asks me something that takes me back I just go ahead and feel it. So there’s something to maturity.

 

What came first, your activist ideas or the experience at Little Rock?

 

That’s a great question. And I think it’s, I think I found who I was at our first press conference. They asked, Why do you want to go to Central High? And I didn’t say, Because it’s there, which is what a teenager would do. I said, When we are giving our lives in the war and working hard, it’s all right. But when we ask for equalization, we’re turned down. And I discovered that girl about fifteen years ago. And that was really special to me, because that’s who I am. Those are the beliefs I’ve had, I continue to have them. I sound so like me, me, me. But I look upon the Little Rock experience as a training ground for things that were to come in my life.

 

What was harder than that?

 

What was harder than that, I think, is watching my kids have to deal with the same kinds of things that I had to deal with, and that was—that’s been hard. Because the whole idea for desegregation in schools, for dismantling Jim Crow, for various civil rights acts, that the purpose of that, the purpose of going to Central High School was to stop it, change it, make it go away. And to have my own children and people’s children of various ethnicities and world views have these experience, this kind of experience, hurts me. And I’m very sorry that we haven’t done that whole work, we haven’t finished that work.

 

When you say we haven’t finished, how close are we?

 

I don’t know. I tell my kids, Put some rhinestones on my walker.

 

[chuckle]

Wheel me up. Because it looks like that’s my life’s work.

 

Yeah.

 

And it’s good work; it’s …

 

I mean, it’s a bad reason to have job security, racism.

 

Oh; well, It’s not even about, you know, like work. It’s not about a job. It’s just a way of life. It’s what I do.

 

And I hope Minnijean Brown Trickey keeps on doing what she’s doing – sharing her story of principle, passion and perseverance. A warm mahalo to her, with aloha, from her new friends in Hawaiʻi. If you’d like to share your thoughts with Minnijean, please send an email to Long Story Short through our website at www.pbshawaii.org and we’ll forward it . For now, as always, we have to keep this fascinating Long Story Short. Mahalo for joining us. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kākou.

 

I gotta tell you. I’m really surprised that you live in Arkansas; so do many of the people who were at the high school when you were mistreated, and you’ve never really had any kind of outpouring of, Oh you know, those were different times, and we didn’t know better, or that was a poor way to handle it. Nothing like that. Not really; not one-to-one.

 

That’s the nature of the discussion of racism in the nation. We are doing it; we can’t do it. We have a hard time; we’re looking at, we’re watching scenarios where we can’t talk about it. What does that mean? What’s wrong with us? We can talk about everything else.

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Minnijean Brown Trickey, Part 1

 

Originally recorded in 2008, this program commemorates the 60th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine. In 1957, nine African American students walked through the doors of the all-white Little Rock Central High in Arkansas and stood against an angry mob in a defining moment for the nation’s civil rights movement. Minnijean Brown Trickey was one of those students, now known as the Little Rock Nine. Trickey, a teacher, writer and lecturer whose life work has been to build understanding and promote freedom and equality, shares details of her story that she doesn’t often tell.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Wednesday, Nov. 22, at 11:00 pm and Sunday, Nov. 26, at 4:00 pm.

 

Minnijean Brown Trickey Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Aloha no and welcome to another Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawai‘i. Hard for many younger folks to believe, but within the lifetime of today’s grandparents, many public school districts on the Mainland were racially segregated – whites in this school, blacks in that school. And when the highest court in the land declared in 1954 that public schools could no longer be segregated, some schools simply did not comply. Nine African-American teenagers showed courage and dignity in the face of angry mobs. Which is why the University of Hawai‘i School of Social Work at Manoa invited Minnijean Brown Trickey – of The Little Rock Nine – to share stories with students. And, why we invited her to share stories with us.

 

Minnijean Brown Trickey is a teacher, a writer, a lecturer. And in 1957, she was a high-school junior who wanted a better education than the one offered at the poorly funded, all-black school where she would have gone if the U.S. Supreme Court hadn’t opened the way for public school desegregation. She became one of the Little Rock Nine, nine young African-American students who enrolled in all-white Little Rock Central High in the state capital of Arkansas.

 

I gotta say, I’ve always been fascinated by what happened in 1957, but it’s hard for me to identify with it, because we didn’t have schools like that here, and there was not angry mobs, 250 National Guard people at the door of the school. Can you tell me what your life was like before you tried to enter the school?

 

Well, I guess you didn’t have to undo a situation such as blatant segregation in schools, ‘cause you didn’t have slavery. So I think, yeah, it might be difficult for a part of the country that hasn’t had that experience to really kind of come to grips with it. But basically, imagine a place where a Black person can’t go a to a hotel, or water fountains were labeled, Colored and W hite, restrooms were in different places and labeled Colored and White. Trying on shoes was in the back of the store. We weren’t allowed, or it was frowned upon, trying on clothing in a clothing store. And we sat on the back of the bus. So I mean, I thought, Well, if I can go to school with teenagers who are like me, who are thoughtful, intelligent, creative, some of this stuff will just go away, because it won’t make sense to them, the same as it doesn’t make sense to me. So it’s kind of a whole way of thinking, and a whole way of life that was based on White supremacy and Black inferiority; as simple as that. I didn’t like it.

 

At that young age, you were already real clear on that.

 

I didn’t like the conditions of segregation. They weren’t pleasant. They devalued me. I was at risk for breaking the law, because those facilities were the way they were by law. It was illegal to go to a circus and sit next to a White person, for goodness sakes; or not go to the circus at all. South Pacific; I really wanted to go to that, but I couldn’t go to that auditorium; Blacks could not go to that auditorium. So it’s about getting denied everything that’s kind of fun or that’s exciting, or that you can grow from, or learn from.

 

South Pacific by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Interestingly, there’s a line in the musical which says, “Racism is not born in you. It happens after you’re born,” and a song, “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught.” Today, Minnijean is doing the teaching and telling the story of The Little Rock Nine. In 1954, in a court case known as Brown versus the Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court declared racial segregation to be unconstitutional. Yet, schools in the South remained segregated. When nine African-American students enrolled at Little Rock Central High, the Governor defied the law of the land and sent in the Arkansas National Guard to keep out the black teens. President Dwight D. Eisenhower intervened and he deployed Army troops to escort the students into the school. They were met with physical and verbal abuse, hostility and death threats – not just that day or week, but continuously, for months. Minnijean Brown and eight other students became known as The Little Rock Nine. And their steadfastness changed the lives of every African American.

 

Would you take us back to that day that you reported for your first day at Little Rock Central High School?

 

Well, I’ll go back further than that and say in May of 1957 on the bulletin at the school, they announced, If you live in the central district and you want to go, sign up. And I did. M-m; said, you know, it’s there, it’s in my neighborhood; why not. And two other girls, my best friends signed, and put their name on. And in the summer the school board—we went to meetings, and they said, Well if you come, you can’t talk back; people will probably call you names, but you can’t respond. And you can’t participate in any extracurricular activities; you can only go to school. Do you still want to go? [chuckle] And I think the expectation was we’d say no; and some of us said yes.

 

You were willing to be uncomfortable in school.

 

Right. And my thought was, I’m beautiful, I’ve got a smile to die for, I’m talented, I’m smart; who couldn’t love me. Couple of weeks, it’s over. And I think maybe all of us felt that, How could this be any other way? We can make friends, we will manage this. And then the school board published the names of the people they had chosen in the newspaper, and that’s the night the windows started breaking in my bedroom. And then on Labor Day evening, Governor Orville Faubus did a special television appearance, saying that he was putting units of the Arkansas National Guard around the school to protect the peace. Well, I don’t know the codes; I’m a kid, and my parents didn’t quite get it. And they asked our parents not to come to school. So eight of us met—were assembled there, and walked to right just a half block from the school, and then walked, and were met by the Arkansas National Guard. Now, on the other end of the school, Elizabeth Eckford was a girl who was mobbed. She rode the bus to school. And there are some amazing photos of her being tormented by people. And we walked up to the Guard, and they put their—closed ranks for us, and then opened back up for White kids, and we were pretty bewildered. So we just went home.

 

Bewildered. And the Little Rock Nine were thrust into a pivotal time in the American civil rights movement.

 

I could hear the sound of a crowd; it sounded like a sports event.

 

The mob, meaning adults on the outside of the school?

 

Yes. Yes; as well as some students. It sounded like a football game or something. And we were taken to these two police cars. One group was told to put blankets over their heads; we were told to keep our heads down. It was in the basement of the school, and one of the main policemen said, When you start driving, do not stop for any reason. And so they screeched out of the side of the school. In the meantime, the mob is beating up this report—these three Black reporters who came to do their work, and it’s all on film. And they were going to storm the school.

 

What did it feel like? I mean, did you feel surrounded by hate?

 

I did. I felt let down, because, despite the fact that I lived in a segregated society, I’d done all these pledges that we do, anthems, and actually heard myself say, Freedom and justice for all. And I go to school one day, and it didn’t mean me. And I can’t say—that was how I felt. I felt—my heart was really broken. And one of the other nine talks about having a really sheltered, good life; and suddenly, it becomes this other life. So I think for all of us, it was a similar thing. But even in a segregated society, there’s a level of protection and care. And suddenly, we’re in a—we’re receiving all this hate, which we had no idea existed.

 

What were people saying to you, in this mob?

 

Well, it was more like a roar. I don’t think there was an individual voice. It was more, Go back to Africa, lots of N-words, go home. Yeah; but it was collective roar, I think, that was so frightening. Had it been one person or two people calling names, I don’t think we would have felt so strongly about it. But it was— and I talk about it turning my head to see the mob; a lot of women. And I was really flabbergasted by that. These were women who were apparently trying to protect their own children. White women screaming that I couldn’t go to that school. And so I’m assuming they thought they were protecting their children. But at the same time, they were abusing children in a very brutal and hateful way.

 

The U.S. Army would finally take you to school.

 

Yes. President Eisenhower apparently—I would propose that after seeing the reporter beaten, felt something had to be done. And apparently, you know, it was the Cold War and we were spreading democracy around the world. And I’ve read quite a lot in the Eisenhower Papers, about Eisenhower, and I would propose that it was the Cold War that caused him to send troops to Little Rock. It was you know, federal versus state powers.

 

Well, what was it like when you did gain entrance to school, and you were a student with your fellow schoolmates? You’ve been fighting the roar of the angry adult White mob; what about the kids in the school?

 

Well, the 101st Airborne Division dispersed the mob, which meant that it was a lot quieter. And we were surrounded by soldiers, and had inside the school, each a guard, a personal guard.

 

Did a guard ever say anything to you, saying he understands your position, or he believes in what you’re doing? Anything like that?

 

Well, all the guards were White, and they were young men. My guard was from Kentucky, and should we actually have a conversation, horror or horrors; White man talking to Black girl, oh, my god. So we had to sort of talk very quietly. And what he would do is, somebody would spray oil on the floor for you to slip; he’d say, Move over. People didn’t really attack so brutally with those guys with us. ‘Cause the first few days, they wore fixed bayonets. It’s my understanding their guns were not loaded, but they wore battle dress. So they calmed it down considerably. But inside the classrooms, we had to sit in the back. So you’d have go to—either somebody would try to trip you as you go to your back seat. And then you’d get to your seat, and it would be soiled; it would have thumbtacks, it would have spit, it could have feces, could have glass. I mean, you’re not gonna sit there, but you’re gonna get the message that this chair, which is yours, has been mutilated, and this is where they want you to be. So it wasn’t physical, particularly, but it was really deeply psychological. And people could spit with the guards there. And they could, well, one guard with Melba Pattillo, who wrote this book called Warriors Don’t Cry, which is about her experience, someone threw acid in her face, and her guard quickly took her to the water fountain and splashed it out of her eyes.

 

And there was no punitive action for all of these insults and attempts to hurt?

 

Well, we realized at first, you know, they would say, Well, did anything happen? And then the question would be, Did his teacher see it? So the rule was, if a teacher didn’t see it, it didn’t happen. So we stopped telling; we stopped reporting. We didn’t dare tell our parents, ‘cause they wouldn’t let us go back.

 

Well, your dad didnt know how bad it was, because you weren’t telling him.

 

Well, we couldn’t. Because they would have said, You can’t go. And we were going. So we protected our parents from the horror of it, because we knew we wanted to keep going.

 

And the drive to keep going was to live on the principles that you were trying to believe in.

 

Yes, to force—and I think a lot of the Civil Rights movement that came later, and in part as a result of these beautiful children who stepped out, was to force these United States to act upon what it always said it was. And I guess that’s what our obligation will always be in this society, is to—if you want to use the word force, through nonviolence, a society to live up to its ideals, and those words that it tells us it is, and those words that it told us nine kids that it was. And we knew immediately that it wasn’t true, but we also felt that we were gonna make it true. And that’s an interesting sort of way of looking at it.

 

So that was the condition you were facing in school every day at the time your dad wrote this telegraph to the President?

 

Would you read that?

 

I would.

 

Because I haven’t seen it in a while.

 

Your dad writing to the President of the White House says, We, the parents of nine Negro children enrolled at Little Rock Central High School, want you to know that your action in safeguarding their rights have strengthened our faith in democracy now as never before. And we have an abiding feeling of belonging and purposefulness.

 

Yeah. I think my dad and other dads—well, that was a composite letter to reinforce Eisenhower’s commitment to us. Because I think that the parents, as well as the NAACP, felt that without that protection we would be killed.

 

At the end of the school year, the only 12th grader from the Little Rock Nine, Ernest Green, graduated – an achievement that brought Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to the graduation ceremonies. Minnijean Brown was not there. The most articulate and forceful of the Little Rock Nine had been expelled. One day, following longtime taunting by a white female student – she called the girl “white trash.” The school climate became more toxic than ever for her. A group of white male students confronted her in the cafeteria. She dumped a bowl of chili on her antagonists.

 

Don’t ask me what happened. When I got to the vice principal’s office, one of the boys who had the most chili was there. And she said, What happened?   And did you do it on purpose? And I said, It was accidentally on purpose. And he said, She didn’t do anything. Well, they weren’t interested in what he said, particularly.

 

And?

 

I was told to go home, and I was suspended. And I can’t remember for how long; it was near Christmas holiday. So I don’t remember. But when I returned, there was war declared on me. The 101st left in November and the Arkansas National Guard protected us.

 

But the kids were up for war?

 

The kids were ready to pay Minnijean back. And so it was just constant kicks; just things, thrown things. We had, you know, we couldn’t leave our books, because people would pee in our lockers, or they would break them open and rip up our books, and just little stuff that just would drive you crazy. But so they were really out for me, I think. It’s hard to know, because we weren’t telling each other what was happening. But this group of five girls followed me for about two weeks; and my heels were bleeding, because they could walk on your heels, and nobody could see; and they could kick you in assembly. So our legs were all black and blue for the—all of us, for the entire time we were there. And I was starting, really, to get worn down. And my heels were raw. And they’d scab over, and then, and I was hiding it from my mom, because I really didn’t want her to know. And they followed me all the way up to my homeroom, calling me names, and laughing at my clothes, and snickering, and as I’m walking in the homeroom, somebody threw a purse. And I picked it up, opened it, and it had six locks, combination locks in it. Stupid me did not keep it for evidence. And I just dropped it to the floor and said, Leave me alone, white trash. Well, guess what? The teacher heard me.

 

But hadn’t noticed these other things?

 

Did not notice the purse, did not see the five girls, did not—and I went down the girls’ vice principal, and she sent me home, and they said I was gonna be expelled, and we appealed it, and did all kinds of things. Now, I have to add to that; in 1984, when Elizabeth Huckabee, no relation to Mike Huckabee, was writing her memoir; and a movie was to be made. And she wanted my character; she wanted me to sign a release. And I said, I won’t sign a release, because I don’t like the way you’ve portrayed me. You know I’ve suffered for being maligned for using those two words. And she says, Well, Minnijean, we expelled you because you were gonna be killed. And I said, Yeah; so I’ve spent all these years feeling guilty. You’ve never told me, you never told my parents. And I’ve been disgraced for my whole life for being expelled from Central. But that’s kind of off the record, and I’m the only person who kind of knows that.

 

And it wasn’t just one bold move, one brave day; it was months and months, and days and many, many moments and fears and anxieties and danger.

 

Yeah; it was. And I understand it much better now. And I’m still working on figuring it out.   And I guess it’s a good thing, because the work I do is about—I’m so compassionate, well, but with a sharp tongue. It is about how we all work in this society, how we must come together in some basic way. I didn’t choose it. It just came to me, to be this person, to believe this way, to work among and with all people in the interest of, you know—well, should we say freedom, or should we say democracy; all those big words.

 

But should we work together somehow to live in harmony?

 

To this day, Minnijean regrets that race-related comment as a teen, about white trash, and explains she just got worn down by the relentless abuse she was dealing with as a teenager. Her place in American history remains intact. When she walked through the doors of Central High, she stepped into a defining moment for the civil rights movement. Her life’s work has been to build understanding and to promote freedom and equality. 

 

Did you have occasion to talk with one of the White children who was trying to humiliate you? Did you ever have a talk later down the line with any of them?

 

I did, actually. Two years ago, I got to talk to the person who was the boy who got the most of the chili, in the chili incident where I dropped my tray and it splattered. These guys were pushing, slamming against me.

 

They were slamming against you in the cafeteria?

 

In the cafeteria, and I just dropped the whole thing. He said he wished he had been the kind of person who spoke up, but he was just trying to go to school. And he also said he didn’t get suspended; they told him to go home and change his clothes.

 

Minnijean Brown Trickey shared stories from her days as one of The Little Rock Nine – the teenagers who, in 1957, entered the previously all- White Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas watched by armed soldiers, an angry mob and a worldwide audience.

 

Id like to start by telling you what happened at the end of my conversation with Minnijean Brown Trickey. When the cameras shut down, our technical crew comprised mostly of college students learning high-definition television production applauded. Then they shook her hand and hugged her. Now, our studio is quite chilly. But at that moment, you could feel the warmth, the aloha. You could see it the students’ faces. And I could see it in Minnijean’s smile. She’s sharing living history, speaking with an unmistakably authentic voice.

 

I know you’ve had occasion to talk with folks who live in Hawai‘i, even though you don’t live here. What are your thoughts about the racial situation here? You know, people like to say we’re a melting pot, but that’s a little optimistic.

 

Yeah. And I worry about sort of platitudes about a given society. The people here know whether they’re a melting pot or not. It has great possibility. And I worry about melting. I worry about having to melt. I think we should be able to work together with our cultural beliefs and world views and ideas. I think we can still work together. We don’t have to give up everything to be able to work together.

 

And do we want a melting pot? I have a friend who says, We should be a big, chunky stew.

 

Absolutely. And that’s what’s beautiful, and that’s what enriches us, and that’s what gives us other information and possibility. And it’s that precise mixture that enriches us all, in my opinion.

 

Minnijean Brown was one of the African-American teenagers to become known as The Little Rock Nine. In 1957, these students enrolled in Little Rock Central High, the largest school in Arkansas’ state capital. The Governor unlawfully and physically kept them from reporting to class by stationing hundreds of National Guard personnel around the school’s perimeter. The President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, sent in troops from the U.S. Army to escort the nine students to school. It was a tumultuous time for our nation and for 16 year-old Minnijean.

 

When I’ve seen clips of all of those confrontations at the school over so long a time, over months, of course, I really felt for the nine children, one of whom was you. But as a parent, I found myself thinking of your parents. I mean, it must have been so hard to let you go, and not know whether you were gonna be truly safe.

 

And we weren’t safe. But the bravery—we are given credit for bravery, but the parents were the brave ones because they followed our lead; because they knew that it was important, not just for us, but for the world. After the first day, seeing all the chaos and violence, we all knew this has to be, it must be. There’s no way of explaining that. But we were together on that. But they always said, You don’t have to go. You don’t have to go today, you don’t have to go tomorrow. Are you sure you want to go?

 

Were you always so sure you wanted to go?

 

Well, I kind of framed it in a way; But Ma, I gotta go, because I gotta see what they’re gonna think up to do to me tomorrow. You know, and so I guess we used different ways of dealing with difficult situations.

 

And none of your schoolmates – none of them dropped out either?

 

We couldn’t; it was just way too important. I admire those children; I just am fascinated by them, what they did, how they did it. And I’m trying to recover some of the ways that made it possible to keep going. But it ends up being sort of, They don’t want me here, I’m coming anyway. And maybe that’s how we have to look at things. And sometimes I don’t want to describe us as brave, ‘cause I’m not sure if we were. We were scared every minute. ‘Cause we got death threats at home. At night, my windows were broken in my bedroom. My father lost his job; other parents lost their jobs. So the terror never really stopped. It just became a test of wills. And now that I’m older, I know, my goodness, we were in such danger. And it makes me shake; now. At the time, my defiance was so powerful that it kept me going. Resistance, I call it. And that’s something we all have.

 

Did your family consider stepping back when your father lost his job?

 

Well, it’s too late, because you’ve already done the deed, you’ve already had the audacity to try to go to Central High School, the bastion of White education. You’ve already blown your thing. Everybody’s angry, people are furious, people are paying you back for having that much uppitiness, I guess, is the way it’s been framed over, you know, three hundred years, that if you dare to think yourself a full person.

 

I know there were angry White mobs; I know there were jeers and insults, and worse by your fellow students, White students. Did you get any pushback from other Blacks?

 

I think initially, I think people weren’t sure. Because I think we have to think there’d been small inroads of integration in small towns and in the South, just few and far between. But I think there was a great hope. I mean, there were two school systems; one superior, one inferior. I think any group of people hopes for that change. I mean, we got old books that were so old that so many pages were missing, and they were from forever ago, and they were dog-eared. And I think young Black kids and families saw the possibility that we would, you know have an equal education, that we would have the same opportunity for education that White kids had. So I mean, when they built a new school, but they didn’t equip the science lab. And they built a new school, and it didn’t have this facility, and the—we were the secondhand kids. And I think people thought that this will stop. So I’m not sure if I remember anybody saying—maybe somebody said, You’ve gotta be crazy to do that. And they were right. [chuckle]

 

I think of your parents. And you know, most parents are hopeful their children do well in the academics, and they don’t, you know, they don’t struggle with how tough the classes are, and they get along with their classmates. But your parents were dealing on an entirely quantum different level of concern.

 

Of course. And if yeah; this is, this is a great conversation, because people don’t ask deep questions often. The whole idea that—and I think a lot of the Civil Rights movement worked this way. That the young people were doing things that the grownups couldn’t do, because in fact, they would lose their jobs. And they didn’t put us there; we put ourselves there and asked them to come with us. There’s a line in a freedom song, I’m on My Way to Freedom Land. And one of the lines; If you don’t go, don’t hinder me. And another line is, If my mama don’t go, I’ll go anyhow. It was about seeing a different vision, and hoping that it wouldn’t stay the same.

 

Minnijean Brown was suspended and expelled from Central High. Out of concern for her safety, she was transferred to a school in New York. She graduated from college and lived for many years in Canada. Now she’s back in Little Rock, Arkansas, where she continues her work as an educator and a crusader for civil rights and the environment. The events of 1957 surely shaped the rest of her life.

 

I got punished for the behavior that they were exhibiting. And it was very unfair. And I knew it was unfair, but it wasn’t shown as unfair. It was, She was a bad girl, she talked back. You know, I should have been perfect. Now, I understand that I needn’t have been perfect to go to Central High School, that those were outrageous expectations. But I was just sixteen; so I didn’t know what I know now.

 

And so there was a lot of learning that took place in those months, but much of it probably wasn’t academic.

 

I don’t remember a single thing. I don’t remember learning anything. I spoke French with a really terrible Southern accent, and when I went to this school in New York, this French teacher, I think I hurt her ears when I spoke French.

 

Thats where you went after you left Arkansas?

 

Yes. So I don’t remember learning any lessons.

 

Except hard knocks.

 

Except how, maybe how we survive in a difficult situation. But I was a bad girl, because I asked the history teacher, Why is it we only have one paragraph on slavery in this one-thousand-page American history book? And that we were all happy? You gotta be bad sometime. [chuckle] But that’s considered bad; that’s considered uppity.

 

And you did that at Little Rock?

 

I did.

 

You didnt get shut down easily by any means.

 

Well, I’d ask it in a very Southern accent, in a very soft way. But I asked it all the same. And I think all of us did that. That we shouldn’t have had to be grateful to go into that brutal situation. And so one more little thing that I think is interesting, and I hope you have space for it. Someone did a doctoral dissertation on the females, gender issues at Little Rock, and talked to a group of White girls, forty years later. And said, We hated that Minnijean, we hated her; we hated her, we hated her. And he said, Why did you hate her? And they finally concluded, Because she walked the halls of Central High like she belonged there. Wow. Wow.

 

There you go. You were the object of much racism. I would wonder if it tended to make you want to dismiss and hate Whites.

 

Well, I guess I didn’t learn. [chuckle] That wasn’t really what I learned at Central. I learned that people can be used for bad purposes, if they allow. I think the mob was incited by the governor, the kids were acting on beliefs that had been part of our American belief system for a very long time.

 

So you’re giving them an out?

 

I’m not giving them an out, but I am what I’m trying to explain, especially to young people that there are structural things that have created our beliefs and our attitudes, and where we live, and how much money we make, and who’s valued and who isn’t; and that the only way that we can dismantle that is to pay attention. So I also know that as soon as I left Central High School, I forgot all about them, and went into the school that was integrated. I had a great time, I realized all those things about myself, which hadn’t been realized in my life before. I was arrested for sitting in, I’ve been in jail, I was in Mississippi for a time, I was really active at my college. It was an amazing, wonderful, hopeful time. And in that process, we have to work with other people, that not any one group can save the world alone. And I work with everybody, and will hang out with everybody, and will interact with everybody; and have had wonderful opportunities to do so. It’s an educational thing that has to take place everywhere. It has to be in the elementary schools, it has to be in high schools. It definitely has to be in the universities, that there is an obligation; we can’t just have like African American history over there, and mainstream history here, which doesn’t, you know—

 

Right; its not boutique.

 

Yeah.

 

Its not boutique history.

 

You don’t get to shop around; it has to be embedded in all our social relations. How do we get here, and how do we get out?

 

Before what happened at the school, did you push the envelope, did you go drink at the other fountain, or slip into a place you weren’t supposed to be?

 

Well, you can’t really go into a place, ‘cause you’re not allowed. But I would, yes, drink out of the White fountain, or I would sometimes sit in the wrong place on the bus, and promptly get kicked off the bus. The bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama had happened, but people had been doing that all along, because it seemed so ludicrous. It doesn’t make sense; it didn’t make sense then, it doesn’t make sense now.

 

What kind of kid were you? Were you fiery and an activist, or did that activism happen later?

 

Oh, I was—h-m, I’ve never been asked that question. I was concerned about things, and I argued with my parents during the Eisenhower-Stevenson election. And I told them, How can you vote for Eisenhower; you have to vote for Stevenson. Don’t ask me why.

 

But at that time in your school, would you have been voted most likely to …

 

No, not at all.

 

to break the bounds and be part of a historical case and—

 

No. Absolutely not.

 

Were you quiet?

 

I was, I was a bookie; I read all the time. I thought I could sing, so I would try to sing every once in a while.

 

[chuckle]

 

But I don’t think anybody, I certainly didn’t anticipate that I would be the person I am now. Inside, I thought deeply about things; but outside, I don’t think I expressed it.

 

Youve moved back to Arkansas, and you have occasion to drive by Central High School.   What are the emotions you feel as you go by?

 

Well, I’m really involved, kind of, with Central High School because my daughter is a park ranger with the National Parks Service and she’s teaching me things. She is at a visitor center, so all kinds of people come in. People come in from all over the world; they tell her and the other rangers how Little Rock, the experience affected them fifty years ago, if they’re older. Young people come in and ask questions.

 

And the school and the government never gave you an apology for what happened?

 

Yes, in 1997—

 

Okay; this is many years—

 

I’m not sure—

 

 

-after the fact.

 

–if it was an apology. But the governor, who was Mike Huckabee, the President was Bill Clinton, and the mayor opened the door symbolically to allow for us to come in. That was very moving.

 

What do you think it is about you that allowed you to get through that as you did, and continue to fight the same battle in other ways, as you moved along?

 

M-m, well, it’s kind of, what—you know, you asked, why did we go to Central. Somebody had to do it. And we just happened to be the ones who did. And somebody’s gotta do all this other stuff too, individually, and collectively. And it keeps me—I work with lots of young people; it keeps me knowing what their issues are, it keeps me on the ground, not being in some kind of tower, not knowing what young people are concerned about. And it enriches me. It inspires me. It just keeps me going. I working with young people is so inspirational to me. And it also invigorates me, and I’m gonna be—I’m sixty-six. I need some of that energy

to circle through me.

 

But the disappointments and the hardship you’ve experience along—and the losses in activism haven’t hardened your heart, haven’t made you have a sense of resignation about anything?

 

Well, I think they’ve given me the right to have a sharp tongue, and to challenge complacency and complicity. And I do that when I can. So I feel, both, I have the privilege of being an elder, as well as a Civil Rights person, to transfer from that time to now. Young people are, What is this about? I don’t get it. It doesn’t make sense to me. Why doesn’t this change? Why are we in this state? Why are we so warlike? Why are we so violent? Why do we have the highest prison rate in the world? They’re still—they’re confused, and I’m confused; and we need to have these talks together, and so I continue to be reinvigorated. Sometimes I do get really cynical; I can do a really good cry in my pillow, I don’t hide my feelings anymore. I don’t feel—if I’m talking and somebody asks me something that takes me back I just go ahead and feel it. So there’s something to maturity.

 

What came first, your activist ideas or the experience at Little Rock?

 

That’s a great question. And I think it’s, I think I found who I was at our first press conference. They asked, Why do you want to go to Central High? And I didn’t say, Because it’s there, which is what a teenager would do. I said, When we are giving our lives in the war and working hard, it’s all right. But when we ask for equalization, we’re turned down. And I discovered that girl about fifteen years ago. And that was really special to me, because that’s who I am. Those are the beliefs I’ve had, I continue to have them. I sound so like me, me, me. But I look upon the Little Rock experience as a training ground for things that were to come

in my life.

 

What was harder than that?

 

What was harder than that, I think, is watching my kids have to deal with the same kinds of things that I had to deal with, and that was—that’s been hard. Because the whole idea for desegregation in schools, for dismantling Jim Crow, for various civil rights acts, that the purpose of that, the purpose of going to Central High School was to stop it, change it, make it go away. And to have my own children and people’s children of various ethnicities and world views have these experience, this kind of experience, hurts me. And I’m very sorry that we haven’t done that whole work, we haven’t finished that work.

 

When you say we haven’t finished, how close are we?

 

I don’t know. I tell my kids, Put some rhinestones on my walker.

 

[chuckle]

 

Wheel me up. Because it looks like that’s my life’s work.

 

Yeah.

 

And it’s good work; it’s …

 

I mean, it’s a bad reason to have job security, racism.

 

Oh; well, It’s not even about, you know, like work. It’s not about a job. It’s just a way of life. It’s what I do.

 

And I hope Minnijean Brown Trickey keeps on doing what she’s doing – sharing her story of principle, passion and perseverance. A warm mahalo to her, with aloha, from her new friends in Hawai‘i. If you’d like to share your thoughts with Minnijean, please send an email to Long Story Short through our website at www.pbshawaii.org and we’ll forward it . For now, as always, we have to keep this fascinating Long Story Short. Mahalo for joining us. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.

 

I gotta tell you. I’m really surprised that you live in Arkansas; so do many of the people who were at the high school when you were mistreated, and you’ve never really had any kind of outpouring of, Oh you know, those were different times, and we didn’t know better, or that was a poor way to handle it. Nothing like that. Not really; not one-to-one.

 

That’s the nature of the discussion of racism in the nation. We are doing it; we can’t do it. We have a hard time; we’re looking at, we’re watching scenarios where we can’t talk about it. What does that mean? What’s wrong with us? We can talk about everything else.

 

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