Ruby Bridges (born September 8, 1954) was six when she became the first African-American child to integrate a white Southern elementary school on November 14, 1960, escorted to class by her mother and U.S. marshals due to violent mobs. Bridges’ bravery paved the way for continued Civil Rights action, and she’s shared her story with future generations in educational forums.
Ruby Bridges grew up on the farm her parents and grandparents sharecropped in Mississippi. When she was four years old, her parents, Abon and Lucille Bridges, moved to New Orleans, hoping for a better life in a bigger city.
Her father got a job as a gas station attendant and her mother took night jobs to help support their growing family. Soon, young Ruby had two younger brothers and a younger sister.
The fact that Ruby Bridges was born the same year that the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision desegregated schools is a notable coincidence in her early journey into civil rights activism.
When Ruby 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 was written to be especially 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 might be able to stay segregated for a while longer.
Ruby lived a mere five blocks from an all-white school, but she attended kindergarten several miles away, at an all-black segregated school.
Bridges’ 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. However her mother, Lucille, pressed the issue, believing that Ruby would get a better education at a white school. She was eventually able to convince Ruby’s father to let her take the test.
The First Black Child in a Desegregated School
In 1960, Ruby Bridges’ 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.
When the first day of school rolled around in September, Ruby was still at her old school. All through the summer and early fall, the Louisiana State Legislature had found ways to fight the federal court order and slow the integration process. After exhausting all stalling tactics, the Legislature had to relent, and the designated schools were to be integrated that November.
Fearing there might be some civil disturbances, the federal district court judge requested the U.S. government send federal marshals to New Orleans to protect the children. On the morning of November 14, 1960, federal marshals drove Ruby and her mother five blocks to her new school. While in the car, one of the men explained that when they arrived at the school, two marshals would walk in front of Ruby and two would be behind her.
When Ruby and the federal marshals arrived at the school, large crowds of people were gathered in front yelling and throwing objects. There were barricades set up, and policemen were everywhere.
Ruby, in her innocence, first believed it was like a Mardi Gras celebration. When she entered the school under the protection of the federal marshals, she was immediately escorted to the principal’s office and spent the entire day there. The chaos outside, and the fact that nearly all the white parents at the school had kept their children home, meant classes weren’t going to be held.
Ostracized at Elementary School
On her second day, the circumstances were much the same as the first, and for a while it looked like Ruby Bridges wouldn’t be able to attend class. Only one teacher, Barbara Henry, agreed to teach Ruby. She was from Boston and a new teacher to the school. “Mrs. Henry,” as Ruby would call her even as an adult, greeted her with open arms.
Ruby was the only student in Henry’s class, because parents pulled or threatened to pull their children from Ruby’s class and send them to other schools. For a full year, Henry and Ruby sat side by side at two desks, working on Ruby’s lessons. Henry was loving and supportive of Ruby, helping her not only with her studies but also with the difficult experience of being ostracized.
Ruby 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. On her second day of school, a woman threatened to poison her. After this, the federal marshals allowed her to only eat food from home. On another day, she was “greeted” by a woman displaying a black doll in a wooden coffin.
Ruby’s mother kept encouraging her to be strong and pray while entering the school, which Ruby discovered reduced the vehemence of the insults yelled at her and gave her courage. She spent her entire day, every day, in Mrs. Henry’s classroom, not allowed to go to the cafeteria or out to recess to be with other students in the school. When she had to go to the restroom, the federal marshals walked her down the hall.
Several years later, federal marshal Charles Burks, one of her escorts, commented with some pride that Ruby showed a lot of courage. She never cried or whimpered, Burks said, “She just marched along like a little soldier.”
Effect on the Bridges Family
The abuse wasn’t limited to only Ruby Bridges; her family suffered as well. Her father lost his job at the filling station, and her grandparents were sent off the land they had sharecropped for over 25 years. The grocery store where the family shopped banned them from entering.
However many others in the community, both black and white, began to show support in a variety of ways. Gradually, many families began to send their children back to the school and the protests and civil disturbances seemed to subside as the year went on.
A neighbor provided Ruby’s father with a job, while others volunteered to babysit the four children, watch the house as protectors, and walk behind the federal marshals on the trips to school.
Signs of Stress
After winter break, Ruby began to show signs of stress. She experienced nightmares and would wake her mother in the middle of the night seeking comfort.
For a time, she stopped eating lunch in her classroom, which she usually ate alone. Wanting to be with the other students, she would not eat the sandwiches her mother packed for her, but instead hid them in a storage cabinet in the classroom. Soon, a janitor discovered the mice and cockroaches who had found the sandwiches. The incident led Mrs. Henry to lunch with Ruby in the classroom.
Ruby started seeing child psychologist Dr. Robert Coles, who volunteered to provide counseling during her first year at Frantz School. He was very concerned about how such a young girl would handle the pressure. He saw Ruby once a week either at school or at her home.
During these sessions, he would just let her talk about what she was experiencing. Sometimes his wife came too and, like Dr. Coles, she was very caring toward Ruby. Coles later wrote a series of articles for Atlantic Monthly and eventually a series of books on how children handle change, including a children’s book on Ruby’s experience.
Near the end of the first year, things began to settle down. A few white children in Ruby’s grade returned to the school. Occasionally, Ruby got a chance to visit with them. By her own recollection many years later, Ruby was not that aware of the extent of the racism that erupted over her attending the school. But when another child rejected Ruby’s friendship because of her race, she began to slowly understand.
By Ruby’s second year at Frantz School it seemed everything had changed. Mrs. Henry’s contract wasn’t renewed, and so she and her husband returned to Boston. There were also no more federal marshals; Ruby walked to school every day by herself.
There were other students in her second grade class, and the school began to see full enrollment again. No one talked about the past year. It seemed everyone wanted to put the experience behind them.
Ruby Bridges finished grade school, and graduated from the integrated Francis T. Nicholls High School in New Orleans. She then studied travel and tourism at the Kansas City business school and worked for American Express as a world travel agent.
Husband and Kids
In 1984, Ruby married Malcolm Hall in New Orleans. She later became a full-time parent to their four sons.
Ruby Bridges Foundation
In 1999, Bridges formed the Ruby Bridges Foundation, headquartered in New Orleans. Bridges was inspired following the murder of her youngest brother, Malcolm Bridges, in a drug-related killing in 1993 — which brought her back to her former elementary school.
For a time, Ruby looked after Malcolm’s four children, who attended William Frantz School. She soon began to volunteer there three days a week and soon became a parent-community liaison. While the coincidence of the situation didn’t escape Ruby, she wasn’t sure why it happened. In 1995, she got her answer.
With Bridges’ experience as liaison at the school, and her reconnection with influential people in her past, she began to see a need for bringing parents back into the schools to take a more active role in their children’s education.
Ruby launched her foundation to promote the values of tolerance, respect and appreciation of differences. Through education and inspiration, the foundation seeks to end racism and prejudice. As its motto goes, “Racism is a grown-up disease, and we must stop using our children to spread it.”
In 2007, the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis unveiled a new exhibition documenting Bridges’ life, along with the lives of Anne Frank and Ryan White.