Do you remember your first day of elementary school? If you were like many kids, you felt a mix of excitement and anxiety (with the excitement usually taking a front seat). You wore a special “first day of school” outfit and clutched your school bag (with your very own school supplies) in one hand and a carefully-prepared lunch in the other. You were ready to learn new things. You were a big kid now.
Now imagine your first-grade self facing an angry mob who didn’t want you to attend.
This was the reality for 6-year-old Ruby Bridges in 1960.
Ruby was born in Mississippi in 1954. This happened to be the same year as the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision, in which school segregation was declared unconstitutional.
This Supreme Court ruling would play a major part in Ruby’s life.
In 1960, New Orleans was in crisis. Although student integration was now federally mandated, the city had yet to desegregate its schools, facing resistance from many of the city’s white residents. The NAACP sent out a request to African-American families who would be willing to help with the desegregation process.
Ruby’s family was now living in New Orleans, and her parents, Abon and Lucille Bridges, agreed to help. Although her father was initially resistant, her mother convinced him that it was the right thing to do, both for Ruby and for all children like her.
On November 14, 1960, Ruby became the first African-American student to attend all-white William Frantz Elementary School, just blocks from where she lived.
But that simple sentence doesn’t begin to tell the whole story.
First-grader Ruby, in her first-day-of-school outfit, walked up to her new school clutching her school bag.
But Ruby was not entering the school with other first-graders. Walking behind and in front of her were four U.S. Marshals, assigned to protect her. But she didn’t really understand why.
She saw the protesters as she arrived. But she was accustomed to life in New Orleans. She thought the boisterous crowd might have something to do with Mardi Gras.
Ruby wondered why her first day was spent in the principal’s office and why so many angry-looking people kept walking by the windows of that office. (They were withdrawing their children from school.)
And the following day, and for many days after, she continued to wonder why there were no other kids in the school. It was just her and her teacher, Mrs. Henry (the only teacher willing to work with an African-American student).
While Ruby was fond of Mrs. Henry – her teacher was kind and made school fun – the little girl was also sometimes lonely. Other children eventually returned to the school, but she was never allowed to interact with them. She couldn’t attend recess with the other kids. She ate lunch alone. The only other people who ever seemed to be around were the Marshals, who had to guard the classroom door and escort her to and from the restroom.
Eventually, Ruby caught on to what was going on and why the angry crowd was always present when she arrived at school. While she was very brave, she did get scared sometimes. One of the protesters had a baby’s coffin in which a black doll had been placed. This was very frightening and gave Ruby nightmares.
Fortunately, by the following year, federal escorts were no longer needed. Ruby now shared a classroom with other students, some of whom were also African-American. The previous year was never really discussed, swept away like dust under a rug.
U.S. Deputy Marshal Charles Burks, one of the four original men assigned to protect Ruby, later remembered the little girl’s courage, stating, “She just marched along like a little soldier.”
In 2000, Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder made Ruby Bridges Hall an Honorary U.S. Marshal in a special ceremony at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
At age 45, Bridges Hall established the Ruby Bridges Foundation, which aims to provide children with an equal opportunity to succeed.
During his presidency, President Barack Obama displayed Norman Rockwell’s painting, “The Problem We All Live With,” which depicts Ruby’s famous first day at William Frantz Elementary.
Bridges Hall was invited to visit the White House in 2011, where the President stated, “I think it’s fair to say that if it wasn’t for you guys, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Title image: AP Photo