Ruby Bridges & Barbara Henry

  Barbara Henry & Ruby Bridges, Boston 1998 Credit: AP/Shutterstock

Ruby Bridges Credit: Getty Images

When

1960

Where

Lousiana, USA

Context

New Orleans desegregation crisis

Ruby Bridges was just six years old and starting school when she made history in 1960. She was the first African American child to be given a place at an all-white elementary school as part of desegregation in the southern states.

Taking her place at school caused such hatred and hostility from the local white community that, for the whole of Ruby’s first year, she had to be escorted by four armed US federal marshals when entering and leaving the school.

Barbara Henry, a young teacher who had recently moved to New Orleans from Boston, was the only member of staff willing to teach Ruby as part of an integrated class. However, in protest against Ruby’s presence, all but three white families removed their children from the school. By the end of Ruby’s first week, she was the only child in class. Neither Mrs. Henry nor Ruby missed a day of school that year – they knew it was important to keep going.


The Ruby Bridges Foundation was inspired by Ruby’s desire to help all children achieve their hopes and dreams.

Nothing can be more moving than watching a small black child climbing the steps to her elementary school that historically and legally did not welcome her presence…

Harry Belafonte, From THROUGH MY EYES by Ruby Bridges. Scholastic Inc./Scholastic Press.
© 1999 by Ruby Bridges. Used by permission.

U.S. Deputy Marshalls escort 6-year-old Ruby Bridges from William Frantz Elementary School, New Orleans 1960. Credit: AP/Shutterstock
U.S. Deputy Marshalls escort 6-year-old Ruby Bridges from William Frantz Elementary School, New Orleans 1960. Credit: AP/Shutterstock
Extract from an interview with Marty Horgan
Robert Coles Speaks on Ruby Bridges
  • Audio transcript – Extract from an interview with Marty Horgan Robert Coles Speaks on Ruby Bridges

    Dr. Robert Coles:   There was a flame of racial hate and street violence.

    They were trying to de-segregate two elementary schools and this little girl was ordered by a federal judge to go into one of them. And she was there all by herself. The whole White population had boycotted the school. No other children with her. And I happened to see this little child going into a school in New Orleans at the age of six, to the first grade, I thought to myself, “I would like to know that child, I’d like to know what’s happening to her.”

    One day, having now spent months getting to know Ruby and being rather puzzled at how normal and stoic and strong she was, going through this kind of living hell. Two hundred people waiting at eight thirty in the morning to tell her they were going to kill her. Two hundred people in the afternoon telling her they were going to kill her. Twenty-five federal marshals taking her into that building.

    What would you expect? You’d expect that a child going through that would pretty soon start developing symptoms and be in trouble.

    I waited and waited and there weren’t any symptoms and she kept going and learning and being the Ruby that she was. A normal six year old Black child, very poor background, parents didn’t even know how to read and write. Humble people.

    One day her school teacher said to me she had been looking out of the window and she saw Ruby yet again coming to school. [Voices of protesters heckling and yelling in the background]  This time she watched carefully and she noticed that as Ruby was walking past this mob of heckling men and women, she stopped, and the teacher saw her lips moving.

    I said, ‘Ruby, your teacher told me today that she saw you talking to those people on the street.’

    She said to me, ‘Doctor, I told her that I wasn’t talking to the people.’

    I said, ‘Well who were you talking to then?’

    She said, ‘I told her – I was talking to God.’

    ‘Why were you praying to God?’

    [Voices of protestors shouting in the background. Reporter asks one of them, “Can you tell us, our audience why you took ’em out?”…A woman says “Because I didn’t want them to go to school with the nigger”]

    She said, ‘I was praying for the people on the street.’  I said, ‘Why were you doing that, Ruby?’

    And she said ‘Well, because I wanted to pray for them.’ I said, ‘You did want to pray for them?’   ‘Yes’, she said.

    I said, ‘Ruby, why would you want to pray for those people?’

    Then she looked at me and her eyes widened and she said,

    ‘Well, don’t you think they need praying for?’

     That stopped me cold.  ‘Where did you get that idea, Ruby?’

    ‘Well, my Mommy and Daddy have told that and the minister told me that in church.’ She said. ‘I pray for them every morning. And I pray for them every afternoon when I go home.’

    (Voices of protesters yelling, ‘I say for the mothers to keep their kids out of school…We’re White people, we don’t want them to go to school with niggers..I have five and they’re not going to school with no niggers!’)

    I said, ‘Ruby, those people were so mean to you, they’re so nasty to you. You must have some other feelings toward them besides wanting to pray for them.’

    She said ‘I just keep praying for them and I just hope that God will be good to them.’ I said, ‘What do you say in the prayer, Ruby?’

    ‘I always say the same thing.’  ‘What’s that Ruby?’

    ‘Well. I always say please, dear God, forgive them because they don’t know what they’re doing.’

    Now I’d heard that some place before. And I heard it in that kitchen, in that extremely impoverished house and it silenced me. I had no more questions to ask.

    Here is a child who we learned in the sixties to say that she came from a culturally disadvantaged and a culturally deprived home.

    They were illiterate, her parents and yet they had taught her Biblical truths in a way that she was to live them out.

    I would like to see some of us who have fancy educations bring up our children similarly. Do we? I’m not so sure we do.

     

Chain Reaction

When you see me, what do you see?
Am I a creature because I’m black?
Am I different to white people?
Is it the way I talk, is it the way I think?

You make ridiculous owl sounds as I pass,
You can compare me to the craving chimpanzee.
But I will release the fire inside of me, and suffocate your soul…
Meet the Lioness who’ll silence the noise.
I will bury you and your ghastly words.

When you’re hot you’re red,
When you’re sick and purple
You’ll die grey and feeble.
Yet you call me coloured?
Black. The other.

Because I’m black, does that make me a criminal!
Why do you fear me? Why is my face a disgrace?
Why do you keep scratching my skin?

What are these pigeonholes?
I’m Mexican so I’m a rapist,
White I’m butter perfect!
Ugly so I live in poverty?
Weird so send me to a mental asylum?

I’m just curious why black never gets answered.

This will make you cry

– Trinity Bibbon

 

Trinity Bibbon was a student at George Mitchell High School, Leyton, east London. She wrote, “This poem was inspired by the Ruby Bridges story. Racism still exists in our schools and we need to help one another understand different cultures and religions.”