Ruby Nell Bridges
September 8, 1954 –
On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Tokepa, Kanas. The justices found segregation in public education via the supposed practice of separate but equal was unconstitutional. States, school districts, and parents would attempt to work around or otherwise ignore the court’s ruling to integrate.
About four months later on September 8, 1954, Ruby Bridges was born in Tylertown, Mississippi the first of her parents’ eight children. Her parents Lucille and Abon Bridges were sharecroppers as were their parents before them. The system of sharecropping was not very far removed from the practices of slavery. While sharecroppers were now technically free, the system remained exploitative and ensured most would remain in poverty.
In search of better opportunities, when Bridges’ was four years old her parents relocated the family to New Orleans, Louisiana. Her father found work as a gas station attendant while her mother worked various odd jobs at night. A year after arriving in New Orleans, Bridges was enrolled in kindergarten at a segregated school.
Louisiana and other southern states continued to subvert the Supreme Court’s ruling. In 1956, a federal judge mandated that the New Orleans School Board create an integration plan for its public schools. In 1960, the state was mandated to integrate its schools.
White supremacist ideology promoted the belief that Black people lacked intelligence while also attempting to deny Black children access to education. In New Orleans, rather than integrating all schools, the school board selected two all-White schools in the city’s Ninth Ward. Hoping to further delay integration, the school district required Black students to complete an entrance exam. It’s believed that the test was purposefully made difficult to increase the likelihood that few if any Black children would pass.
Bridges along with five other Black girls in kindergarten passed the various admission tests. Two of the girls remained at their segregated schools. Three of the girls Leona Tate, Tessie Prevost, and Gaile Etienne were set to begin the first grade at McDonough 19. Meanwhile, Bridges was enrolled by herself at William Frantz Public School.
During segregation, many communities did not provide adequate schools or other educational resources for Black students. For kindergarten, Bridges had been forced to attend an all-Black school that was several miles away despite there being an all-White school just five blocks away. Making it difficult if not impossible for Black children to get an education was intended to ensure that there would always be a cheap labor force that could be exploited.
Bridge’s mother wanted her to get the best education possible in hopes that she would have more opportunities and a better life. Yet, her father had some misgivings about Bridges being one of the first to attend an integrated school. He was rightfully afraid that Bridges would have to contend with anger, aggression, and maybe even violence from segregationists. Her mother eventually won over her father to the idea that Bridges attending the school was important for her future but also the future of all Black children.
The school board continued to delay which resulted in Bridges and the other children beginning the school year at their old integrated schools. But the board eventually ran out of options.
On November 14, 1960, facing a looming threat of violence Ruby Bridges and her mother were escorted to school by four armed U.S. Federal Marshals. As had occurred with the Little Rock Nine, a rabid mob crowded around the school. A mere six years old, when Bridges first saw the crowd, she thought it was Mardi Gras. But the marshals explained how the security detail would work and she realized that the crowd was yelling, cursing, and throwing objects. This was all in an attempt to intimidate a six-year-old.
Bridges entered the school but was taken to the principal’s office instead of a classroom. Most of the other students had been kept at home by their parents. And those who had arrived at school were eventually pulled out of class. As the crowd continued to rage outside, Bridges spent the entirety of her first day in the principal’s office for her safety.
The nonsense continued on the second day as all but one of the school’s teachers, Barbara Henry, refused to teach Bridges. Originally from Boston, Henry was new to the school. The other students were pulled out of her class which left Henry teaching Bridges one-on-one for the rest of the school year.
Bridges would be escorted to and from school by the marshals for the rest of the school year. To keep Bridges safe, Henry did not allow her to have recess out on the playground. She was also forbidden to eat anything from the school’s cafeteria after a woman threatened to poison her. Bridges still didn’t fully grasp what was going on until another student declined to be her friend because she was Black.
Having to walk a gauntlet each day only to be isolated from other students placed a lot of stress on Bridges. She could hear the taunts from the crowd but was instructed to look forward to avoid seeing the protestors and their signs. In one incident, Bridges saw a female protestor standing outside the school with a Black doll in a coffin. When it was discovered that she was hiding rather than eating the lunches packed by her mother, Henry began to eat lunch with Bridges to keep her company. Robert Coles, a child psychologist, saw a news story about Bridges and volunteered to serve as her counselor.
The ordeal would have effects on others besides Bridges. Local grocery stores would not allow Bridges’ mother to purchase food or other goods. Bridges’ father was fired from his job and struggled for many years to find employment. Her parents’ marriage fell apart and ended in divorce when she was 12. Her grandparents who had continued to work as sharecroppers were dismissed from the property they worked on. Henry’s contract was not renewed the following year which prompted her to return to Boston.
Members of the local Black community and other parts of the country offered Bridges and her family support. The protestors dwindled by the end of the school year and plans were made to admit more Black students. The following year, Bridges walked to school by herself and had other students in her class.
Ruby Bridges completed elementary school at Frantz and then attended another integrated school for high school. She remained in New Orleans even into adulthood. Bridges worked as a travel agent until she got married, had four sons, and became a stay-at-home mom. Books and made for TV movies have been made about Bridges. But the most notable commemoration of her experience is Norman Rockwell’s painting The Problem We All Live With.
- Anderson, Meg. 2021. “Ruby Bridges (1954 – ).” Blackpast.org. May 7, 2021. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/bridges-ruby-1954/.
- Biography.com Editors, ed. 2021. “Ruby Bridges.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. February 23, 2021. https://www.biography.com/activists/ruby-bridges.
- Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, ed. 2022. “Ruby Bridges.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. September 22, 2022. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ruby-Bridges.
- History.com Editors, ed. 2023. “Ruby Bridges Desegregates Her School – History.” HISTORY. January 11, 2023. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/ruby-bridges-desegregates-her-school.
- Lewis, Jone Johnson. 2020. “Biography of Ruby Bridges: Civil Rights Movement Hero Since 6 Years Old.” ThoughtCo. Dotdash Meredith. November 9, 2020. https://www.thoughtco.com/ruby-bridges-biography-4152073.
- Michals, Debra. 2015. “Ruby Bridges.” National Women’s History Museum. 2015. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/ruby-bridges.
- “Ruby Bridges (U.S. National Park Service).” n.d. National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. Accessed March 22, 2023. https://www.nps.gov/people/rubybridges.htm.
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