RUBY BRIDGES HALL
1954 – Present
Civil Rights in the South
During the 1950’s and 60’s, the United States was reverberating with change as the struggle for civil rights came to its peak. African Americans marched in the streets in demand of equal treatment that were due all American citizens. One of the equalities that they fought for was integration in local school systems. These efforts would end the “separate but equal” educational structure that was being enforced at the time. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education outlawed segregation of the nation’s public schools. It ruled that:
“To separate them [children of different color] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”
Despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling, many schools in the south ignored its order, so much so, that by 1957 less than two percent of southern schools had been integrated. That same year nine black students enrolled in a white high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, which the law granted was permissible. Nevertheless, there was so much upheaval from the white segregationists that President Eisenhower had to order federal troops to protect the nine black students as they attended their school. Coincidentally, six years after the Brown v. Board of Education’s ruling, in the real world of the American South, Ruby Nell Bridges could attend kindergarten only in an all-black school. It was an era in which racism, political brutality, unequal educational opportunity, and poverty were all intertwined into a seemingly impenetrable and perpetual barrier to the equality for African American citizens.
In an interview, Ruby Bridges talks of her experience growing up in the South:
“My grandparents were sharecroppers. My cousins and myself worked for my grandmother in her garden; we would pick vegetables and that sort of thing. I realize we were all very poor…. When I was growing up the white people and the black people just didn’t mix. I learned that because of going back to Mississippi with my grandparents. They were truly a little bit different than I was used to. It was always yes ma’am and no sir to people that were much, much younger than them, always to people who were white. They seemed to walk on eggshells; my grandmother would bring us to the store which was a good distance away from the farm. Whenever we had to go, she would tell us, ‘You don’t do this and you don’t do that and say yes ma’am’, that sort of thing. We were all briefed before she would take us. So I knew that there was always some reason, something about when we got around those other, white people, to be on our best behavior.”
In 1960, after a protracted legal battle, a federal court order required integration of the New Orleans, Louisiana school system. Plans were drawn up to integrate the city’s public schools gradually, beginning with the first grade. On November 14, 1960, amid violent protests, four African American girls began first grade at formerly all-white public schools. Three of the girls attended McDonough School together, but Ruby Bridges integrated William Frantz School alone. For the duration of her first grade year, Bridges was escorted in and out of school daily by armed federal marshals who needed to protect the tiny girl from enraged, cursing crowds of segregationists. Bridges, in an interview, reflected on what happened during that school year:
“I drove up in front of the school. I was more impressed with the school than the people standing around shouting. I was impressed with this huge, very nice building in the neighborhood. I was trying to figure out why this was such a big deal because no one ever explained it to me. Back then when you were told to do something you did it. I remember having to take a test and in my mind the reason everyone was making so much of a fuss was that I passed the test and must have been really, really smart. That was what I figured out for myself. I was used to Mardi Gras and people throwing things and shouting and waving their hands so I thought this was either Mardi Gras or they were there because they were really excited about seeing this really smart child. So those people in that crowd never bothered me.”
“There were some things that didn’t fit into this logic. I couldn’t figure out why there weren’t any kids in the school; that didn’t make sense. So I kept searching for the kids. I was lonely. I wanted to see other kids. That troubled me a bit.”
“…the fact that the crowds would bring this coffin with a black doll inside. That frightened me. The one thing that stuck in my mind was that during those days if you were black you weren’t allowed in a funeral home so you would have services in your house. I remembered a coffin being in the living room of my aunt and uncle, and seeing a baby in the coffin…so when I was going to school and people were bringing this coffin I must have related the two and understood that it meant death. So part of my nightmares about the crowd outside the school had to do with the coffin.”
One Teacher Makes a Difference
Although Bridges was the sole student in her classroom, she was not allowed to participate in recess or lunch with other students, and faced violence, including threats of poisoning and a display of a black doll in a coffin. In spite of all of this, Bridges did not miss a single day of first grade at William Frantz School. Bridges’s first grade teacher, Barbara Henry, speaks of the hardships that they both endured in order for Ruby to attend school:
“Nobody at the school lifted a finger to make Ruby’s life easier. The principal was a rigid, prejudiced woman who gave me no guidance or help. Ruby and I were both treated as unwelcome outsiders. When I went to the teachers’ lounge at lunchtime, the other teachers at first ignored me or made unpleasant remarks about the fact that I was willing to teach a black child.”
Bridges’ family also sacrificed; her father was fired from his job, her sharecropping grandparents were expelled from their land, and all family members were at acute risk of harm by segregationists. Her stoic bravery attracted national attention in the daily news and magazines, in Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck’s book, Travels With Charlie, and in renowned artist Norman Rockwell’s painting, “The Problem We All Live With.” The first grader’s determination to take a stand against injustice and receive an equal education marked a turning point after which New Orleans and other Southern schools moved toward full integration.
However, Ruby Bridges’ impact on society did not end in her childhood with her historic integration of the previously all-white William Frantz School:
“When I got to be around 35, nothing had the same meaning. I was really struggling to find myself and was depressed for about a year. I know now I was searching for my purpose. When I decided to go back to my faith I thought, I don’t know what it is I’m supposed to do. For some reason nothing was falling into place anymore, nothing was working, it was almost like something was working against me. So I decided, ‘I’m not going to go out and look for a job; I’m not going to do anything; I’m going to surrender and You (God) will have to show me because whatever it is You want me to do in life, I will do it.’…
When I got off my knees things just started falling into place. It’s just awesome and amazing when the Lord is at work in your life. I made a commitment, and that’s the flip point. There’s no turning back when you make that kind of commitment to your Maker. I kept thinking, what happened to me, when I was six going into that all-white school, has to mean something.
Then I realized, I have to work with children. I will take my experience of going into that school and share that with kids today and pick it apart with them. I go back to being six when I am talking to them and we pick the whole thing apart. At the end of a two hour session they can walk away and say, ‘She’s right. Racism truly makes no sense at all.’ ”
In 1999 Ruby Bridges formed the Ruby Bridges Foundation, to promote “The values of tolerance, respect, and appreciation of all differences.” Ruby believes that “Each and every one of us is born with a clean heart… We know nothing about hate or racism.” Her foundation, therefore, is dedicated to working with and educating children, so they can live rich and meaningful childhoods and grow up to be models and leaders of loving kindness and equality. In addition to the Ruby Bridges Foundation, Ruby has written a memoir, gives lectures, keynote addresses, and speaks at schools across the country. She continues to actively share with others the lessons of the history in which she played such a pivotal part.
“The most important lesson that I took away that year [at William Frantz School] was that Mrs. Henry, who came from Boston to teach me, looked exactly like those people (hate-faced, white supremacists). I didn’t know what to expect from her. But she said, ‘Come in and take a seat. I’m your teacher.’ And she showed me her heart. She became my best friend. And I believe to this very day in my heart that she was put there for me. And that shaped me into who I am today. I am not a prejudiced person. The lesson I learned in first grade is the very lesson that Dr. King tried to teach all of us: ‘You should never judge a person by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.’
Then I went into the schools to try to actually share my story. Everyone was familiar with the Norman Rockwell painting. They knew of that painting, but they did not know who that person was, even if that person was a real person, or what that person’s name was. It is very, very important that we share those stories. That is our shared history. It’s the Good and Evil that is in the world. I have to remind you, Good and Evil comes in all shades and colors. Good and Evil looks exactly like you and me. You see, I also know that first hand because I lost my oldest son. He was murdered. He was murdered by Evil. An Evil that stood over him and shot him eleven times looked just like me. That is what we need to be concerned about. It has absolutely got nothing to do with the color of our skin. So we need to know our history… So that we make sure that those kids--the next generation--that they want to strive to be exactly like these people (the humanitarians of Remember Them: Champions for Humanity).”
As Ruby Bridges went into schools to share her own story to students, she has remarked on the children’s acute interest in faith:
“When I speak to kids in schools across the country I’m amazed that they really want to know about this thing called faith and the belief in God. I believe, and that is going back to my faith, that good will always prevail. That love will conquer hate. I think I see more than most people because I’m in the schools across the country, talking to the children and that is the children’s faith.”
Ruby Bridges was not the only black child who desegregated a white school, nor is she the only child to have ever done something courageous. Children love knowing about role models that are kids like them. Why don’t we have more monuments that include them?
“Nothing can be more moving than watching a small black child climbing the steps to her elementary school that historically and legally did not welcome her presence. Ruby Bridges had been called by her country to perform an act of profound bravery—to become the black child in an all-white school.
By this simple act of courage, Ruby moved the hearts and opened the minds of millions of people. Her story was and is an inspiration.”
- Harry Belafonte
As a small, brave child, Ruby Bridges walked with courage past angry protestors and into the history books as the African American child who integrated her New Orleans school. Forty years later, she continues to show that same courage, rejecting bitterness to bring a message of love, faith, and acceptance to a new generation of Americans.”
- President Bill Clinton
Ruby Bridges, Through My Eyes (New York: Scholastic Press, 1999) preface.
Ruby Bridges telephone interview, with Ruby Bridges, Francine Agapoff, Kim Chernin, Mario Chiodo,
Raynell Phillips, at Chiodo Art Development, Oakland, CA, February 16, 2007.
Remembering Our Histories, Featuring Ruby Bridges & Leon Leyson, CD, Remember Them:
Champions for Humanity, September, 2009.
President Clinton Awards the Presidential Citizens Medals, Monday, January 8, 2001, http://clinton5nava.gov/WH/new/html/Mon.Jan_8_141712_2001.html