In honor of Black History Month, City Year Philadelphia will spotlight African-American pioneers in education. To kickoff the series, we’ll recognize Ruby Bridges, the first African-American student to attend an all-white school in the South.
Ruby Bridges was born on September 8,1954 in Tylertown, Mississippi. Coincidentally, she was born the same year that the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision desegregated schools in America. Ruby spent her early years on a farm where her parents worked as sharecroppers. The family worked on the land, but did not possess ownership of it. When Ruby was four years old, her family moved to New Orleans with hopes of a better life in a bigger city. In the new city, the family lived in a small apartment where Ruby shared a bedroom with her younger sister and two younger brothers. Her father worked at a gas station while her mother worked night shifts to help support their growing family.
Ruby attended a school several miles away from her home. There was a school much closer, five blocks away to be exact, however only white students were permitted to learn in that schoolhouse. Still, while she was in kindergarten, Ruby became one of many African-American students in New Orleans selected to take a test that would determine their eligibility to attend one of the local white schools. It is said that the test was extremely challenging and written in a way that students would have a difficult time passing.
Bridges’ father didn’t want his daughter to take the test. He believed she would pass, enabling her to attend a white school which would bring on a load of trouble he felt. However her mother, Lucille, did some convincing to let her take the test, believing that the education at a white school would be far better than the education that she had been receiving.
In 1960, the NAACP informed Ruby’s parents that she was one of six African-American students to pass the exam. However, she would be the only student of the six to attend the school, William Frantz School, near her home.
Ruby became the first black child to attend an all white school in the South. But not without significant hurdles. The state of Louisiana found ways to fight the federal court order and slow down the integration process. As a result, Ruby entered first grade at her old school. It wasn’t until November when the schools were officially integrated.
As the news of integration spread, white community members and neighbors were displeased. They didn’t want a black girl in the same classroom as their white children. The Bridges’ family received death threats and were told on numerous occasions that if Ruby stepped foot inside William Frantz School, she may not come out alive.
Fearing that there might actually be danger, a federal district court judge requested the U.S. government send federal marshals to protect the African-American children who would be the first to officially integrated the white schools.
On the morning of November 14,1960 federal marshals drove Ruby and her mother five blocks to her new school. When they arrived, they were met by a large crowd, yelling and throwing objects.
Just six-years-old at the time, Ruby recalls believing that all the commotion was for a Mardi Gras celebration, but that was not the case at all. When she finally entered the school, she was escorted to the principal's office where she spent the entire school day. As for the other students, there were hardly any children in school that day seeing as though most were outside protesting alongside their parents while others were simply kept home because their parents didn’t approve of their children sharing a classroom with a black child.
What’s more, only one teacher at William Frantz School agreed to teach Ruby. Barbara Henry was a new a teacher from Boston and taught Ruby the entire year. Because many parents removed or threatened to removed their children from the school if they shared a classroom with Ruby, she received one-on-one teaching from Henry. For Ruby, each and every day was spent inside Ms. Henry’s classroom, not being able to be with the other students in the cafeteria or even outside to play during recess.
The first few weeks at Frantz were a challenge for Ruby. She recalls only being permitted to eat food from home because of threats to poison her food. Toward the end of the first school year, though, a few white children in Ruby’s grade returned to the school. During her second year, everything seemed to be different. Ms. Henry’s contract wasn’t renewed by the school district, there were other students in her classroom, and she also walked to school by herself -- without federal marshals.
After grade school, Ruby graduated from Francis T. Nicholls High School in New Orleans. She then went on to study at the Kansas City Business school majoring in travel and tourism. In 1995, a book about her experience at William Frantz titled The Story of Ruby Bridges was published. Then in 1998, Disney turned her story into a film simply titled Ruby Bridges.
Today, Ruby is 64 years old and she still calls New Orleans home. There, she runs the Ruby Bridges Foundation aimed to help troubled children at William Frantz and other schools across the U.S. With the foundation, Bridges travels the country speaking about the importance of education and integration for students.
It’s amazing to think that at six years of age, Ruby Bridges made a historical impact on African-American students for generations to come. Her courage and eagerness to learn not only changed her life, but the lives of others around her. We honor and salute Ruby Bridges as an African-American pioneer in education.