Ruby Bridges headlines NJEA Convention

Civil rights pioneer still working to integrate schools

By Patrick Rumaker

On Nov. 14, 1960, six-year-old Ruby Bridges crossed the threshold of William Frantz Elementary School and single-handedly initiated the desegregation of New Orleans Public Schools. An angry mob greeted Bridges on her first day, and it remained there for months. Federal marshals escorted her to school.

Ruby Bridges’ parents, Abon and Lucille Bridges, were not activists when they decided to send their daughter to the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. They only wanted a better education for their children. They had grown up as sharecroppers in Tylertown, Mississippi, where Bridges herself was born before the family moved to New Orleans for a better life.

For Ruby’s parents, school was a luxury to which they had only limited access as children. When the crops came in they would see white children going to school while they worked in the fields. But sending their daughter to Frantz Elementary was not an easy decision for the couple.

“My father was definitely against it,” Bridges recalled. “He had fought in the Korean War and he would say, ‘You could be in the same foxhole with a white soldier fighting for the same country, but if you lived, at the end of the day you couldn’t go back to the same barracks together and you couldn’t eat in the same mess hall.”

Abon Bridges believed if things couldn’t change in the midst of combat, they wouldn’t change by sending his daughter to a white school. Her father was concerned for her safety, but Bridges’ mother was determined to send her to the school.

“Women are very, very strong, and she persuaded him,” Bridges said.

The six-year-old Bridges was unaware of all that it took to enroll her at Frantz Elementary School.

“My parents didn’t try to explain what was happening outside,” Bridges said. “The only thing I knew was that I was going to a new school. I was probably—like any six-year-old child—excited about a new school, but a little bit nervous: wondering if I would make new friends, if I was going to like my teacher or my teacher like me, and that was the extent of it.”

The only thing they told Bridges was that she was going to a new school and she’d better behave.

Bridges rode to the school with four federal marshals who escorted her into the school building. Living in New Orleans, Bridges mistook the angry mob outside the school for Mardi Gras revelers. She didn’t meet her teacher that day. She spent her first day in the principal’s office as white parents came into the building to remove their own children to protest her enrollment.

“The whole day I sat down until the bell rang and watched over 500 kids walk out of school, and it was because I was there,” Bridges said.

On the second day, again greeted by an angry mob, Bridges was escorted through a school emptied of other students and met her teacher, Barbara Henry, the only teacher in the school who did not refuse to teach Black children. Henry’s husband was stationed on a military base in nearby Mississippi. Originally from Boston, Henry had been accustomed to teaching diverse groups of children on a military base in France.

“It didn’t take very long to realize that even though she looked like the people in the mob outside, she wasn’t like them at all,” Bridges said. “She showed me her heart. She made school fun. I loved school because of her. And every day that I passed that mob and got into the school and into that classroom, I knew I was going to have a good day and it was because of her.”

The worst part was the loneliness

While the six-year-old Bridges was protected from fully understanding the gravity of what was going on around her, she couldn’t help but notice that she was the only child in her classroom and her school. Later when some parents began to cross the picket line and bring their children to the school—facing, the same angry mob, Bridges noted, without the protection of federal marshals—the principal who supported the boycott made sure that these children never interacted with Bridges.

“The worst part of that year was the loneliness,” Bridges said.

Bridges was not allowed to have lunch in the cafeteria or go to the playground. She would occasionally hear other children, but never saw them. Ultimately, Henry confronted the principal threatening to report to the superintendent her illegal separation of Bridges from the other children. That finally led to Bridges being with other children on the playground, and that is what led to her finally understanding what was really going on.

“A little boy said to me, ‘I can’t play with you because my mom said not to play with you,’” Bridges recalled. The boy then quoted a racial epithet from his mother to explain why he wasn’t allowed to play with her.

“That was my first encounter with racism,” Bridges said. “I then understood that all of those people were out there in front of the school because of me. I realized that the school was empty because of me and because of the color of my skin.”

The importance of teaching history’s full story

Bridges discussed the importance of telling the full story of American history and her role and the role of educators in teaching history.

“When you teach history from one perspective or if you leave part of the story out, then you’re changing history,” Bridges said.  “I’ve been in schools across the country for 25 years, and I am always amazed at how interested the kids are in my story. I’m a firm believer that if we want to get past our racial differences, it will come from our young people.”

Bridges said all children come into the world with a clean heart and a fresh start in life. If we are still dealing with racial issues today, she contended, it is because of adults.

“Come Nov. 14, it will be 60 years since I experienced what I experienced at six years old, and look at where we are today,” Bridges said. “I believe that as educators it is our responsibility to teach the truth. Every person needs to understand the contributions that their ancestors made—good, bad or ugly—to this country.”

Bridges knows that children are ready to hear the truth. As part of her work, Bridges makes two-hour presentations to students from grades 2 to 12 in schools across the country. She notes that even the second-graders will sit still and listen to her presentation.

“We are underestimating our kids,” Bridges said. “We can teach history the way history happened, and they will be fascinated by it. And in the long run I think that will teach them that they, too, can make a difference in the world.”

Segregation persists, even in New Jersey

NJEA’s officers discussed with Bridges the continuing segregation of schools, particularly in New Jersey. Bridges lamented the lack of racial diversity in the school she famously entered 60 years ago.

“Even the very school that I integrated in 1960 is now an all-Black school,” Bridges said. That totally goes against what I believe in, the work that I do, and the message that I carry across the country,” Bridges said.

Protesting the lack of diversity in her former elementary school, Bridges was told that nothing could be done because, “There are laws in place where you can’t solicit kids based on race—in other words, ‘No, we can’t integrate a school.’”

“And I thought to myself, ‘How can you look me in the face and tell me that you can’t integrate a school. I mean, I’m Ruby Bridges! I did it, and I believe that we can do it again,” Bridges recalled.

Bridges said that laws and systems that interfere with the integration of schools need to change.

This Is Your Time

Describing it as her calling to help young children understand that racism makes no sense, Bridges knew she had to reach out to young people following the murder of George Floyd.

“I watched what everybody else watched and couldn’t believe that it was happening on national television, and I couldn’t believe that a human being would do that to another human being,” Bridges said. “I thought about the kids that I’ve been working with over these 25 years, I really felt that they were probably sitting there thinking ‘what would Ruby Bridges say about this?’ I needed to come up with a way to be able to address that.”

Ultimately, she chose to write a letter addressed, “To the young peacemakers of America.” The letter is delivered in the form of a book titled This Is Your Time. The book retells her story and links it to today’s protests for justice.

“I tried very, very hard in this letter to explain to them that I understood what was happening and that they didn’t need to be afraid,” Bridges said. “That I’m very hopeful because in my 25-year journey talking to them, I’ve always seen hope and love in their eyes and in their hearts. That they didn’t need to be afraid. That they needed to get involved.”

“It is a very dark time in this country, but I am hopeful that this is just growing pains, and we are going to come out better for it—united, together.” Bridges added. “And I believe that you as educators play a role in that.”

Learn more about Ruby Bridges at rubybridges.com.

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