You may be familiar with Norman Rockwell’s iconic painting, “The Problem We All Must Live With” showing a small, determined little black girl in a beautiful white dress marching to school flanked by towering members of the U.S Marshals as she dodges thrown tomatoes and ignores hateful graffiti. That little girl is Ruby Bridges. On September 8, 1954, Ruby Bridges entered the world. She, along with her courageous parents, Lucille and Abon Bridges, became fearless warriors for justice, integration and peace.
My six year old just started first grade at a new school. Like Lucille and Abon, our family moved to a new neighborhood so that our girls could have access to the best educational opportunities we could find for them. I was a mess on her first day of school. She cried so then I cried. I waited on pins and needles all day to find out how her first day had gone. At least one other person reading this knows the anxiety and fear that come from leaving your child all day in an unfamiliar place where you just hope she’ll be safe and cared for and find joy.
Now put yourself in the shoes of a black family in Tylertown, Mississippi (population: 1,331) in the 1950s. Educational opportunities for your children are not acceptable, so you move to New Orleans, Louisiana hoping to offer your children a better shot. Although the 1954 decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas outlawed segregation in public schools, in 1960 a federal court had to order the public schools of New Orleans to integrate.
The NAACP asked families to volunteer to be in the vanguard of black children to integrate formerly all-white schools and Lucille Bridges raised her hand. Ruby would enroll in William Frantz Elementary School. Ruby is the oldest of five children. Her father is not totally sold on his child being the guinea pig, but her mother is all in. This is important for Ruby and for all African American children to follow her. If not her, then who?
I recall walking my daughter to her first day of school and wondering who her friends would be, and would my family be able to make friends with the other families walking alongside us. Lucille drove her child to school on the first day through an angry mob throwing things at them and screaming. The car windows were rolled up and Ruby thought the crowd was out because of Mardi Gras. But Lucille knew: ALL OF THESE PEOPLE HATE ME AND MY CHILD. Never mind. We’ll carry on. Lucille’s decision leaves me breathless with respect and awe.
Ruby and Lucille enter the school protected by U.S. Marshals. They do not make it out of the principal’s office for the entire school day because of the chaos inside and outside of the school. All of the white parents pull their children out of the school. EVERY TEACHER EXCEPT ONE refuses to teach in a school where a black child is in attendance. One, Barbara Henry, from Boston, agrees to teach Ruby Bridges. Even after the white children returned to the school, none of them would be in Ruby’s class. Ms. Henry taught Ruby, a 6 year old, alone for the entire school year.
Before my daughter started school this year, I pored over the school menu, inspecting it for healthy fare. Ruby was not allowed to eat any food prepared by the school due to threats of poisoning (again, against a 6 year old child). When my husband walks our daughter to school, kids gleefully greet her and they stroll over with other families who invite us to playdates and parties. On Ruby’s walk to school one woman would go out of her way to threaten to poison the 6 year old and another woman would hold up a black baby doll in a coffin. They did that every day.
But Ruby persevered. She completed her first grade year at Frantz Elementary and continued her integrated education, with other students in her class, until she graduated from a desegregated high school in New Orleans. As an adult, Ruby Bridges Hall married, had children of her own and wrote a memoir, Through My Eyes, and two children’s books about her experiences: Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story and Let’s Read About Ruby Bridges.
On the occasion of her birthday, let’s share a cupcake for Ruby Bridges and tell other people about her and her family’s unbelievable courage and unwavering belief in America’s guiding principle that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” (Declaration of Independence)