January 21, 2008
In celebration of Martin Luther King Day, we thought we’d tell the story of Ruby Nell Bridges, who became a civil rights pioneer in the first grade. Ruby wasn’t entering just any first grade classroom. She was going to attend the William Frantz Public School, in 1960. In doing so, she would integrate New Orleans’ schools for the first time since the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated schools were unequal and therefore unconstitutional.
Things didn’t go particularly well that day. Ruby needed protection to enter the school, but local and state officials wouldn’t provide it, so five big burly federal marshals accompanied her instead. She was unprepared for screaming mobs of whites. She recalls that “driving up, I could see the crowd but, living in New Orleans, I actually thought it was Mardi Gras. There was a large crowd of people outside of the school. They were throwing things and shouting, and that sort of goes on in New Orleans at Mardi Gras.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t Mardi Gras. Soon, all white parents would withdraw their children from the Frantz school, and riots would erupt throughout the city over this six-year-old. All teachers refused to teach and left save for one, a white woman named Barbara Henry who grew up in the West Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts.
For a year, Ruby Nell was the only student at Frantz and Henry was the only teacher. Neither missed a day. In later years, Barbara Henry told Boston University’s Daily Free Press: “As teachers, you should never underestimate the power of the children before you.” Describing her time with Bridges, Henry said: “We created our own oasis of love and learning, and we were able to shut out the hurts of cruelty, prejudice [and] bigotry that surrounded us both inside the building and outside.”
The cruelty included a woman who threatened every morning to poison Ruby Nell as she walked to school, to the point that Bridges only wanted pre-packaged food. Another protester displayed a black doll in a wooden coffin.
Ruby Nell prayed on her way to school. Her mother had told her: “Remember, if you get afraid, say your prayers. You can pray to God anytime, anywhere. He will always hear you.” Bridges wrote: “That was how I started praying on the way to school. The things people yelled at me didn’t seem to touch me. Prayer was my protection.” One of the federal marshalls, Charles Burks, later said of Ruby: “She showed a lot of courage. She never cried. She didn’t whimper. She just marched along like a little soldier, and we’re all very proud of her.”
Other people paid a price, too, for this desegregation. Ruby’s parents, Abon and Lucille Bridges, had been divided on sending their daughter to the Frantz school. Her mother prevailed; not only did she want her daughter to have a better education, but also she wanted Ruby Nell to “take this step forward…for all black children.” Abon lost his job as a gas station attendant, and Ruby’s Mississippi sharecropper grandparents were forced to leave land they’d farmed for 25 years. The white owners of a grocery store told the Bridges’ family not to shop there anymore. At the end of the school year, Henry was not invited to return and went home to Boston.
Mrs. Henry explained integration to the child by saying: “ It’s not easy for people to change once they have gotten used to living a certain way…Some of them don’t know any better and they’re afraid. But not everyone is like that.”
As Ruby Bridges wrote on her website: “Even though I was only six, I knew what she meant. The people I passed every morning as I walked up the schools steps were full of hate. They were white, but so was my teacher, who couldn’t have been more different from them…The greatest lesson I learned that year in Mrs. Henry’s class was the lesson Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to teach us all. Never judge people by the color of their skin. God makes each of us unique in ways that go much deeper.”
Gradually, the ranks of the protesters diminished. The next year at school, everything was different but also strange, because no one talked about the previous year. Bridges wrote: “…when I went back to school in September, everything was different. There were no marshals, no protesters. There were other kids — even some other black students — in my second-grade class.…It was almost as if that first year of school integration had never happened. No one talked about it. Everyone seemed to have put that difficult time behind them.”
Ruby Bridges Hall still resides in New Orleans. After working for 15 years as a travel agent and parenting her four sons and orphaned nieces, she started the Ruby Bridges Foundation in 1999 to promote “the values of tolerance, respect, and appreciation of all differences.” She and Mrs. Hall were eventually reunited after more than 30 years and have made appearances together. In January 2001, she was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal, the second highest civilian award in the United States. The award is given to any citizen who has “performed exemplary deeds or services for his or her country or fellow citizens.”
And now you know what happened to the little girl whose portrait Norma Rockwell painted for Look magazine.
Read contemporary news about racial discrimination.
Photo credit: AP
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