On September 8 1954 in Tylertown Mississippi, the same year the U.S. Supreme Court rendered its historic decision outlawing racial segregation in ele schools Ruby Bridges was born. Ruby lived with her parents on a farm and was just six years old when she became the first African American child to desegregate an all white Southern elementary school. She later became a civil rights activist and still is to this day.
When Bridges was in kindergarten she was one of many African American students in New Orleans who were chosen to take a test determining whether or not she could attend a white school. It is said the test itself was written to be difficult so that students would have a hard time passing. The idea was that if all the African American children failed the test, New Orleans schools could continue to be segregated. Bridges lived a mere five blocks from an all-white school but attended kindergarten several miles away at an all-black segregated school.
Ruby’s father was averse to his daughter taking the test believing that if she passed and was allowed to go to the white school there would be trouble. Her mother However, Lucille, pressed the issue believing that Bridges would get a better education at a white school. She was eventually able to convince little Ruby’s father to let her take the test.
In 1960, Ruby’s parents were informed by officials from the NAACP that she was one of only six African American students to pass the test. Ruby would be the only African American student to attend the William Frantz School near her home, and the first black child to attend an all-white elementary school in the South.
On the morning of November 14 1960 she was escorted to class by her mother and 4 x U.S. marshals due to violent mobs and protesters. Ruby’s brave act was a milestone in the civil rights movement and to this day she shares her story with future generations.
For this monumental change to take place, The landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education that outlawed the segregation in primary schools was handed down in 1954, but of course school systems across the Jim Crow South delayed the change as long as possible.
The Little Rock Nine started at Little Rock Central High School in 1957, and in 1960 the federal courts informed New Orleans they had to start the process and so Ruby started her first-grade year at the previously all-white school. Three other African American girls started at nearby McDonogh No. 19 as well.
“Driving up I could see the crowd, but living in New Orleans, I actually thought it was Mardi Gras,” Bridges remembered in a 1997 interview.
“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” she added.
“I really didn’t realize until I got into the school that something else was going on. Angry parents at that point rushed in and took their kids out of school,” she continued.
More than 500 students removed themselves or were removed by their parents that day and little Ruby Bridges was taught in a classroom by herself. All teachers refused to educate her except one. On her second day, the circumstances were much the same as the first and for a while, it looked like Bridges wouldn't be able to attend class. Only the one teacher, Mrs Barbara Henry agreed to teach Bridges. She was from Boston and was a new teacher to the school. "Mrs Henry," as Bridges would call her even as an adult, greeted her with open arms. Bridges was the only student in Henry's class because parents pulled or threatened to pull their children from Bridges' class and send them to other schools. For a full year, Henry and Bridges sat side by side at two desks, working on Bridges' lessons. Henry was loving and supportive of Bridges, helping her not only with her studies but also with the difficult experience of being ostracized. Bridges' first few weeks at Frantz School were not easy ones. Several times she was confronted with blatant racism in full view of her federal escorts.
If any white parents who continued to send their children to William Frantz were harassed as well. White families who chose to put their children back in school were called communists and racial epithets, and were told that their children would get a disease from being in an integrated school. Little Ruby Bridges received death threats and threats of poisioning, so she stopped eating her lunch.
"Admist this towering presence of federal marshalls stood the most beautiful little girl one could ever dream of seeing. Looking so delicate and so unaware of the mantle of her chain she wore that day, and as I walked over to her to introduce myself she came forward, her bowed head raised gently and a little smile came across her face before those beautiful big brown eyes. It was a love at first sight, how could you not fall in love with a child like that..." - Barbara Henry, Ruby Bridges Teacher
"Shortly thereafter they would come and join us for the afternoon, and I do remember that beginning where those 3 or 4 little kids just gingerly walked into that room because that was the first time they had ever been in a classroom with a black child, buy you know, kids are kids with hearts free of prejudice" - Barbara Henry
Ruby Bridges was immortalized in the 1964 Norman Rockwell painting, The Problem We All Live With. Smithsonian magazine recounts how he departed from the real-life photographs, adding the vandalized wall to create an image that would inform how America thought about the Civil Rights Movement. Ruby would reappear in many guises in American culture, even in musical comedy. “That painting he did about the little black girl walking—that’s in Hairspray,” recalled John Waters, the director and writer of the film. “That inspired L’il Inez in Hairspray.”
In 2011, the painting was put on display at the White House and Ruby Bridges Hall visited with President Barack Obama; “I think it’s fair to say if it hadn’t been for you guys, I might not be here and we wouldn’t be looking at this together,” he told her.
The Story of Ruby Bridges has been depicted in a book written by her child psycologist Robert Coles and can be purchased HERE
Ruby Bridges also wrote her own book 'Ruby Bridges goes to School, My True Story' and can be purchased HERE.