A few days ago, I blogged about the Little Rock Nine. They comprised a courageous group of young African-Americans, indeed, who defied the odds, at every turn, in order to get an equal education. However, someone who was even braver was six-year-old, Ruby Nell Bridges, the first African-American child to attend an all-White school anywhere in the South.
Ruby was born in Mississippi, in 1954, and grew up, with her parents, on her grandparents’ sharecropping farm. That same year, the United States Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, ordering the integration of public schools. The rural life was really difficult for Ruby’s family; so, when Ruby was four-years-old, her parents moved to New Orleans with Ruby and her siblings, where the opportunities were presumed to be better. Her father worked as a gas station attendant, during the day; and her mother worked various jobs at night.
Ruby went to kindergarten at an all-Black school, and she and her siblings lived a rather insular world, primarily within one square block. Although, the US Federal Government had ordered schools to desegregate in 1954, it took the State of Louisiana (and several other Southern States) almost six years to issue a court order to force its schools to allow Black students.
In 1960, when Ruby was 6-years-old, her parents responded to a call from the NAACP and volunteered her to participate in the integration of the New Orleans School System, even though it was certain that she would not be welcome, nor welcomed.
That Spring, Ruby took a test, along with other Black kindergarteners in the city, to see who would go to an integrated school in September. Six African-American children passed the tests, including Ruby, who was selected to start first grade at William Frantz Public School – by herself. The other students attended various, other schools. Ruby’s father was initially reluctant, saying that, “they were just asking for trouble; and Blacks and Whites would never be treated equally.” But her mother felt strongly that the move was needed, not only to give her own daughter a better education, so she could get a good job; but also to "take this step forward ... for all African-American children." She eventually convinced her husband that, despite the risks, they needed to take advantage of this opportunity for Ruby.
The court ordered November 14, 1960 to be the first day that Ruby started school at William Frantz. That momentous day was commemorated, by Norman Rockwell, in the very famous and powerful painting, The Problem We All Live With, which now hangs outside The Oval Office.
|Ruby with President Obama, viewing The Norman Rockwell painting|
The morning of November 14, four, US Federal Marshals, dispatched by President Eisenhower, drove Ruby and her mother the five blocks to the school; and escorted them inside, flanking them in front and back, to protect them from the angry mob awaiting them.
|Protesters outside the school|
Ruby describes the arrival, thusly: "Driving up, I could see the crowd shouting and throwing things outside the school; but living in New Orleans, I actually thought it was Mardi Gras because that sort of goes on [during the celebrations]. My mother said, ‘Ruby Nell, don’t be afraid. There might be some people upset outside, but I’ll be with you. ” When they got out of the car, Ruby held her mother’s hand and followed the Marshals through the crowd and up the steps into the school.
Former United States Deputy Marshal, Charles Burks, later recalled, "[Ruby] showed a lot of courage. She never cried. She didn't whimper. She just marched along like a little soldier, and we were all very, very proud of her."
As soon as Ruby entered the building, White parents took their children out of the school, which she witnessed, while sitting in the Principal’s office. That first day, because of the uproar, Ruby never made it to her classroom.
The second day, the Marshals drove Ruby and her mother again to school. She tried not to pay attention to the mob. However, terrifyingly, a woman in the crowd had placed a Black doll in a little wooden coffin, which scared Ruby more than all of the people screaming at her.
Meanwhile, all of the teachers had refused to continue teaching at the school, while a Black student was enrolled – except one. When Ruby and her mother got safely inside the building, on the second day, they were warmly greeted by a young, White woman, who said, "Good morning, Ruby. Welcome. I'm your new teacher, Mrs. Henry." Although Mrs. Henry seemed nice, Ruby was still apprehensive because she had never been taught by a White teacher before.
|Barbara Henry, today, in Ruby's 1960 classroom|
Barbara Henry was from Boston, and was the only teacher, at William Frantz, who was willing to teach Ruby. Mrs. Henry escorted them to an empty classroom and told Ruby to choose a seat. Day after day, for the entire school year, they sat next to each other, in that empty classroom and worked on Ruby’s lessons. Mrs. Henry made school fun, and they did everything together. Ruby couldn't go out in the schoolyard for recess, because the other children were also protesting, so Mrs. Henry organized games in the classroom; and for exercise, they did jumping jacks to music. Mrs. Henry became Ruby’s best friend and helped her forget about the angry world just outside. Neither of them missed a day of school that first year.
Ruby’s mother had to return to work and look after her other children, so each day, Ruby had to enter school on her own, but still protected by the Marshals, and, as she would say, “by her deep faith in God.” The protests outside of the school continued. Each morning, one of the female protesters threatened to poison her, so Ruby was only allowed to eat food that her mother had prepared at home.
Militant segregationists, as the news called them, expanded the protests that were happening at the school; and riots erupted all over the city. The chain reaction was devastating for the whole family. Ruby’s father was fired from his job; the White owners of a grocery store told the family not to shop there anymore; and even her grandparents, in Mississippi, were forced off the farm, where they had been sharecropping for 25 years.
Amazingly, people from around the country, who had heard about Ruby on the news, sent letters and donations. An African-American neighbor gave Ruby’s father a job painting houses.
Another person who helped Ruby was Dr. Robert Coles, a child psychiatrist who happened to see her being escorted into school. Dr. Coles volunteered to work with Ruby through the ordeal and visited the Bridges’ home each week. Dr. Coles later wrote a children's book, The Story of Ruby Bridges, to acquaint other children with Ruby’s story.
|Dr. Robert Coles|
Ruby finished school at William Frantz and graduated from an integrated high school. She then continued her studies, and subsequently worked as a travel agent, for 15 years. Ruby also married and had four children. In 1993, she began volunteering at William Frantz three days a week, as a parent liaison.
|Ruby in Second Grade|
|Ruby as a parent liaison|
Not long after that, journalists began calling the school to inquire about Ruby, after reading Dr. Coles’s book. They wanted to know what had happened to her after leaving William Frantz. Barbara Henry also sought her out through the book’s publisher; and they were reunited in 1995, after 30 years apart. They are now close friends and often do joint appearances at schools, on behalf of the Ruby Bridges Foundation, which Ruby founded in 1999. The Foundation’s mission seeks to end racism and prejudice and promote tolerance, respect and appreciation for all differences. She says, "racism is a grown-up disease, and we must stop using our children to spread it.”
|Barbara Henry and Ruby|
Sadly, Ruby and her family lost their home during Hurricane Katrina, in 2005. They have rebuilt; and Ruby also worked hard to help rebuild William Frantz, which was also badly damaged during the storm, and remained closed for more than five years. Her ultimate goal is for the rebuilt school to become a model for integration and equity in education and teaching children accurate history, including stories such as her own.
Because of her amazing story, Ruby has been bestowed with many accolades, including receiving the Presidential Citizens Medal, in 2001, by President Clinton; and a new, elementary school in California, being named after her.
|Presidential Citizens Medal|
Ruby Bridges is an incredible reminder that African-Americans, especially, owe a huge debt to the courageous, non-violent children and adults, who would do anything to make a better life for themselves and for future generations – despite the huge obstacles and injustices, which they gracefully faced, in all aspects of their lives.
Click here to watch a 6-minute interview with Ruby, in 2010, on the 50th Anniversary of her first day at William Frantz Elementary School.
Sources: Ruby Bridges/Guideposts, Wikipedia, Huffington Post/Marian Wright Edelman, I Love Ancestry, Google Images, YouTube