Right of Passage

updated 09/29/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/29/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

LIKE TEENAGERS EVERYWHERE ON THE FIRST DAY OF class, 15-year-old Minnijean Brown wanted to make a good impression. Alone in her Little Rock bedroom on the morning of Sept. 4, 1957, she picked out her best outfit, a pastel-striped dress and a smart new bolero jacket. "I wanted to dress right, act right," she recalls, for she knew the days ahead might be difficult. Earlier that year she and eight others volunteered to become the first black students ever to attend all-white Central High School—a plan backed by a federal court decision but bitterly opposed by many of Little Rock's whites. "I figured, 'I'm a nice person,' " she says." 'Once they get to know me, they'll see I'm okay We'll be friends.' "

She couldn't have been more wrong. "We never even got close to the school," says Jean Brown Trickey, now 56 and living in Canada. That day a jeering white mob filled the streets around Central High. Troops from the Arkansas National Guard, ordered to "preserve the peace" by the state's segregationist governor, Orval Faubus, blocked the students' path with rifles and bayonets. Twice Trickey and her friends tried in vain to attend classes, and each day the ugliness in the streets grew more threatening.

And then, just as the forces of segregation seemed on the verge of victory, the tide turned. Television carried the plight of the black teenagers to sympathetic viewers across the country, and in Washington, on Sept. 25, an indignant President Dwight Eisenhower sent 1,000 troops from the 101st Airborne Division to escort the students, known as the Little Rock Nine, up Central High's broad front steps and into its classrooms. In the end the victory, which President Clinton will mark by-attending a 40th-anniversary reunion of the Nine, belonged to supporters of racial equality. "Little Rock was a major milestone," says civil rights activist Roger Wilkins, now a professor of history at George Mason University. "We felt the country was becoming more just and that the federal government was on our side."

But for Trickey and the other students who endured the ordeal, it was a victory with a high price tag. "Until then," she explains, "I hadn't experienced hatred." Ironically, Little Rock in those days was considered a relatively liberal southern city. Blacks and whites used the same buses, libraries and parks—even if they generally returned at night to homes in segregated neighborhoods. "If you were in your place," says Trickey, "you were fine."

For the Brown family, home was a second-floor apartment near the city center, where retired nurse Imogene Brown, now 81, and her husband, the late Bob Brown, a landscaper, lived with their four children. Minnijean—the oldest and always "outgoing and quite confident," according to her mother—was a sophomore at all-black Horace Mann High School when a teacher seeking volunteers handed out applications to attend Central High as part of the school board's attempt to integrate Little Rock's public schools three years after the Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Trickey jumped at the chance. Central High was close to her home, had newer books and equipment and boasted an impressive record of sending its graduates on to college. Moreover, in the wake of the Montgomery bus boycott led by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1955-'56, she relished the idea of playing a role in the struggle for equality. "When you're black in a segregated society," she says, "you're born an activist. People have different ways of opposing oppression, but they all oppose it. I was—I am—polite, soft-spoken. But believe me, I have 100 ways not to say, 'Yes'm.' "

Yet nothing had prepared her for the violence that awaited her. On their first scheduled day of classes, one of the nine black students, Elizabeth Eckford, arrived at school alone and was chased by a mob until a sympathetic white woman helped her escape onto a city bus. Three weeks later, with the arrival of the 101st Airborne, she and the others were able to attend Central, but harassment was constant. During that year, one member of the Nine was splashed in the eyes with acid, and another was cut with broken glass left on the floor of shower stalls. Once, when Imogene Brown visited the school, she saw her daughter fall down a staircase after being kicked by a white student. "It was awful," says Brown. "I went to the superintendent and he did nothing."

After school the Browns contended with hecklers driving by their apartment building and late-night threatening phone calls. Says retired teacher Thelma Mothershed Wair, 56, one of the Nine, who lived nearby: "[Callers] would tell my parents, 'If you let that nigger come back to Central, I'm gonna blow up your house.' "

Trickey did her best to ignore the abuse. But eventually the daily pressure began to gnaw at her resolve. One day in December a group of boys repeatedly blocked her way as she tried to pass them in the cafeteria with a tray of food. Frustrated, she dropped her tray "accidentally on purpose," spilling chili on one of the boys. For that she was suspended for six days. Two months later she called a girl who had hit her in the head with a purse "white trash." This time she was expelled. For years she struggled with "anger and sadness," she says, feeling she had let down family and friends. But her mother never wavered in her pride. "We weren't disappointed in our daughter," she says. "We were disappointed in the school."

Within weeks, Trickey had left Little Rock behind her. Her parents sent her to live with a family in New York City. Despite her homesickness, Trickey flourished at a private school there, then studied journalism for four years at Southern Illinois University, where she met her future husband, zoologist Ray Trickey, now 55. They were married in 1967. Later that year they moved to Canada so Ray could avoid the Vietnam draft, settling near Kenabeck, in northern Ontario. Jean, an activist for environmental causes, home-schooled their six children at their farm. "There's nothing more important," she says, "than raising smart, curious, thoughtful children."

As the Little Rock Nine anniversary approaches, Trickey—who divorced in 1987 and now works as a social worker and antiracism consultant in Ottawa—looks forward to drawing support again from her eight friends. Like many of the others, she is disappointed that full racial equality isn't yet a reality but remains proud that she played a part in changing attitudes. "I would like young people to know about the Little Rock Nine," she says, "to know that everyone can be heroic. We were just teenagers and friends."

MARGARET NELSON in Ottawa and bureau reports

From Our Partners