Ruby's fight not done yet

Imagine being a 6-year-old who is hated by many people in your community. Adults yell and swear as you walk to school. Classmates are removed by their parents because of you. Only one teacher is willing to instruct you.
Jul 24, 2010


Imagine being a 6-year-old who is hated by many people in your community.

Adults yell and swear as you walk to school. Classmates are removed by their parents because of you. Only one teacher is willing to instruct you.

What could you have done in those six years of life to become the target of so much animosity?

You had the audacity to obey your parents, to desire a good education, to exercise a freedom that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court and to be the first black student to attend an all-white school in Louisiana.

For Ruby Bridges, this was no hypothetical situation. She was that 6-year-old, who helped end segregation in the South.

February is Black History Month, and some local students have been asked to create timelines involving famous black people.

Madeline, my oldest daughter and a second-grader in Mary Jo Weilnau's class at Maplehurst Elementary School, selected Ruby Bridges. I must admit I didn't know anything about her. But after helping Madeline do research, I wanted to share Ruby's story with others.

Ruby was born Sept. 8, 1954 in Tylertown, Miss. and moved with her family to New Orleans a year later.

In 1960, Ruby was tested and assigned to the all-white William Frantz School. While her father was against the idea, fearing retaliation, Ruby's mom knew the school would provide a better education than the all-black schools.

On the morning of Nov. 14, 1960, federal marshals escorted Ruby and her mom to William Frantz amid jeering protesters. The ordeal became a national story and inspired Norman Rockwell to create his famous 1964 painting, "The Problem We All Live With."

Ruby and her mom spent the entire first day in the office. They spent the second day in the classroom with the teacher, Boston native Barbara Henry.

By the third day, it was just Ruby and Henry no white parents would allow their children to be in the same classroom with Ruby. And that's the way it would be the rest of the school year. Henry, though, took a loving interest in Ruby and supported the girl through this difficult time. She taught the 6-year-old as if she were teaching a whole class.

After winter break, Ruby started to see Harvard University child psychiatrist Robert Coles, who volunteered to work with her after seeing her being escorted through the crowd outside William Frantz. Coles and his wife became friends with the Bridges, and he later wrote a children's book, "The Story of Ruby Bridges."

As Ruby's father feared, consequences ensued. He lost his job, and her grandparents, who were sharecroppers in Mississippi, were turned off their land.

Despite death threats, neither Ruby nor Henry missed a day during the 1960-61 school year.

The white students eventually returned that year, and other blacks arrived in following years. Ruby no longer needed escorts when school started in the fall of 1961, and she became just another student.

Now Ruby Bridges Hall, she went on to graduate, get married, have four children and become a travel agent to help support her family.

In the early 1990s, after her brother's drug-related murder in New Orleans, she volunteered as a parental liaison at William Frantz, where her late brother's children attended school.

Fame soon returned.

In 1995, she collaborated with Coles in publishing the picture book for children. Its success helped her, four years later, establish the Ruby Bridges Foundation, which offers consulting to schools seeking to establish diversity programs. Once the book came out, she and Henry were reunited on the "Oprah Winfrey Show."

Disney made a TV movie based on her experiences in 1998. The following year, she published "Through My Eyes," an account of her first year at William Frantz, and started her foundation.

While still living in New Orleans, she tours the country, giving lectures at schools to fight racism, which she calls "a grown-up disease."

Ironically, prior to Hurricane Katrina devastating New Orleans in August 2005, there was again very little diversity at William Frantz, only now the school and the neighborhood were almost exclusively black. Public schools around that city, in fact, are predominantly black, while most white children attend private schools.

In an Associated Press article a few years ago, Bridges Hall said: "Schools should be diverse if we are to get past racial differences. If kids have the opportunity to come together to get to know one another they can judge for themselves who they want their friends to be. All children should have that choice. We as adults shouldn't make those choices for children. That's how racism starts."

Katrina damaged or destroyed more than 100 of the district's 128 school buildings, including William Frantz. The Ruby Bridges Foundation is involved in restoring the school, and plans call for a world-class civil rights library and living museum in her name.

"This little girl," Bridges Hall said in a recent article, "is coming back to desegregate it, again."

For more information,, which has a program titled "Reading for Ruby" that raises money for her foundation.