My wife and I took a trip to New Orleans recently. On a tour bus we passed William Frantz Public School. Do you know the significance of that school? Ruby Bridges was 6 years old when she was selected to attend the school, the only black student, by virtue of the order to desegregate schools based on the Brown v. Board of Education decision many years prior. Her story is nothing less than heroic:
Ruby and her mother were escorted by four federal marshals to the school every day that year. She walked past crowds screaming vicious slurs at her. Undeterred, she later said she only became frightened when she saw a woman holding a black baby doll in a coffin. She spent her first day in the principal’s office due to the chaos created as angry white parents pulled their children from school. Ardent segregationists withdrew their children permanently. Barbara Henry, a white Boston native, was the only teacher willing to accept Ruby, and all year, she was a class of one. Ruby ate lunch alone and sometimes played with her teacher at recess, but she never missed a day of school that year.
While some families supported her bravery—and some northerners sent money to aid her family—others protested throughout the city. The Bridges family suffered for their courage: Abon [her father] lost his job, and grocery stores refused to sell to Lucille [her mother]. Her share-cropping grandparents were evicted from the farm where they had lived for a quarter-century. Over time, other African American students enrolled; many years later, Ruby’s four nieces would also attend. In 1964, artist Norman Rockwell celebrated her courage with a painting of that first day entitled, “The Problem We All Live With.”
I heard about Ruby for the first time in a book by Denise Shekerjian about winners of the MacArthur Award for creativity, one of whom was Robert Coles, a child psychiatrist who had stumbled across Ruby while he was in the Service, stationed in Mississippi in the early 1960’s. Shekerjian described Coles’s connection with Ruby.
They became friends, and [Ruby] trusted him with her worries and hopes that, in time, [Coles] recorded in [his book] The Moral Life of Children:
“I knew I was just Ruby, just Ruby trying to go to school, and worrying that I couldn’t be helping my momma with the kids younger than me, like I did on the weekends and in the summer. But I guess I also knew I was the Ruby who had to do it–to go to school and stay there, no matter what those people said, standing outside. And besides, the minister reminded me that God chooses us to do His will, and so I had to be His Ruby, if that’s what He wanted. And then that white lady wrote and told me she was going to stop shouting at me, because she’d decided I wasn’t bad, even if integration was bad, then my momma said I’d become ‘her Ruby,’ the lady’s, just as she said in her letter, and I was glad; and I was glad I got all the nice letters from people who said I was standing up for them, and I was walking for them, and they were thinking of me, and they were with me, and I was their Ruby, too, they said.”
We rode by Ruby Bridges’s school and the tour guide/bus driver said we were passing a historical place and he mentioned Ruby. She was a heroine as a child and also as an activist years later. They were going to tear down the school after Katrina, but Ruby Bridges spearheaded an effort to get it designated on the National Register of Historic Places and find funds to repair it. The last irony is that today, because of white flight, it’s 100% black kids attending.
(If you want to learn more about Ruby Bridges’s inspiring life and incredible work, this article in The Guardian is a starting point.)
There’s sadness and something overwhelmingly bittersweet about Ruby’s story, maybe because her innocent courage shows us the way. Indeed, racism is learned behavior.
Maybe our country is a better place today than it was back then in the early 1960’s.
Whether it is or isn’t, Ruby Bridges remains my hero.