Historical Women Who Rocked: Ruby Bridges

At just 6-years old young Ruby Bridges became the face of school integration.

Ruby Bridges was born on September 8, 1954. She was born to Lucille and Abon Bridges, who had four other children, giving Ruby three brothers and one sister. At age two, Ruby and her family moved from Tylertown, Mississippi, where her family had been sharecroppers, to New Orleans, Louisiana, because her parents sought better work opportunities.

In New Orleans, Ruby went to a segregated kindergarten. However, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in 1954, the year that Ruby was born, that all schools must desegregate.   The decision was made in the case of Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education, when the parents of another grade-school girl, Linda Brown, sued the school system of Topeka, Kansas, because Linda had to attend an all-black school outside of the neighborhood where she lived.

The law was put into place in Louisiana at the beginning of Ruby’s first grade year. Ruby and five other African-American girls were given the opportunity to attend a school made up of only Caucasians, after they passed psychological and educational tests. Ruby’s parents were faced with a critical decision.

For this reason, Lucille wanted to send Ruby to the new school. Lucille wanted to give her daughter the opportunities she never had, but Abon, Ruby’s father, was not eager to send Ruby to the new school because he did not want to endanger his family. Over time, though, Lucille convinced Abon that sending Ruby to the new school would be the best thing to do.

November 14, 1960 was the first day of first grade for Ruby and a memorable date in American history. Ruby was the only African American student to attend William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. She was the only one of six other students who lived in her neighborhood and were given the choice to change schools who dared to take this chance.

On the morning of the first day of school, Ruby and her mother were escorted by four federal marshals because the local and other federal officials were not willing to protect her. She walked past crowds of people screaming vicious and derogatory things at her. However, this did not frighten her:  what did frighten her was a woman holding a black baby doll in a coffin.

When Ruby entered the school, she sat in the principal’s office, where she remained all day due to chaos throughout the school.   Sweetly innocent, Ruby thought that the crowds and chaos were because of Marti Gras.

Many parents withdrew their children because of integration, and Barbara Henry, a Boston native, was the only teacher willing to accept her, and Ruby’s first white teacher became a major influence upon her.   All year, she was a class of one, with her teacher as the only other person in the room.   According to historian Laura J. Lambert, “For recess, the two did jumping jacks or played games inside.  Ruby ate lunch alone.  Neither Ruby nor Mrs. Henry missed a single day of the first grade.”

The Bridges family suffered for their courage.  Abon lost his job, and Lucille was told that she was no longer welcome as a grocery customer.   Her share-cropping grandparents were evicted from the farm where they had lived for a quarter-century.

After some time, integration was accepted by the community and more and more students, both black and white, enrolled in the school. Ruby, being the first black American to integrate William Frantz School paved the way for others — including her four nieces, who attended the same school years after Ruby walked those very same halls. Ruby also graduated from a desegregated high school, where she studied travel and tourism and later became a travel agent. She later married, took the name Ruby Bridges Hall, and had four sons.

In 1999, at the age of 45, Ruby Bridges established The Ruby Bridges Foundation. The foundation “promotes and encourages the values of tolerance, respect, and appreciation of all differences.” The foundation’s goal is to create change through education and inspiration of children and to eliminate racism. The foundation’s motto is: “We believe racism is a grown-up disease and we must stop using our children to spread it.” Ruby remains an activist in the fight for equal rights.

Leave a Reply