A woman who was on the front lines of the fight against segregation in U.S. schools 50 years ago said she isn't opposed to the idea of black-focused schools like the one recently approved by the Toronto Board of Education.
"You know, I'm all for integration, but it's got to work for everybody," said Minnijean Brown Trickey, 66, at an event at Ottawa's Carleton University Thursday night.
Trickey, who lived in Ottawa through most of the 1990s and earned a social work degree from Carleton, added that the push for black-focused schools in Ontario signals a concern within the community.
"So that insistence or that concern points to a problem. And we need to look at what that problem is and start working it out."
In 1957, when she was 15, Trickey was one of the "Little Rock Nine," the first group of black high school students to attend Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., which had previously been open to white students only.
Being part of the forced desegregation, assisted by a court injunction and federal troops, was a "horrific experience," Trickey told CBC in an interview Thursday.
"A lot of violence, terror, lost jobs of our parents, brutal attacks inside the school — pretty horrible," she said.
But Trickey said even though she battled segregation, she recognizes that there has been a problem with black underachievement that the idea of black-focused schools is intended to address.
"It's another way of trying to insert maybe some cultural knowledge," she said. "I think a dominant society is not aware of how much it sort of wants everybody to be … the same."
In an address to Carleton University's alumni association Thursday evening, Trickey described a personal experience that highlighted some of the concerns about black students in the current system.
She recalled how a guidance counsellor at Ottawa's Lisgar High School told her daughter she "should not aspire to college."
"I'm not talking abstractions. I'm not talking about somebody else," she said. "I'm talking about my own children's experience."
When asked by CBC about her thoughts at seeing a black man and a woman run for the U.S. Democratic presidential nomination, Trickey said she was heartened, but can't help asking why it took so long.
"It says more about who we are than who they are in terms of how thrilled we are that this is happening," she said, adding that there's still much to be done in the fight for equality.
"There's a song that says freedom is a constant struggle," she said. "So I accept that and am energized by that."