She was young. She was sweetly innocent. And she was unaware of what her small step would do to her community in the coming years. As a young brilliant student who successfully cleared the aptitude test to qualify for an admission into a better educational institution, she paved way to unite two completely different races and groups. At the young age of six, she became a public face by entering into and desegregating an all-white school. Little did she know that her excitement to study at a new institution would bring about a major difference in the lives of colored Americans, who presumed African-Americans not capable of walking shoulder-to-shoulder with them. However, it was her struggle and determination that helped her fight all odds and complete her schooling. Many books, paintings and movies have shown the hardships and obstacles she experienced in her initial days. Since then, she has been fighting and working to alter the lives of African-Americans and give them a free and liberated environment by eradicating the dividing disease called racism, through her foundation. She is firm and strong-minded on her dream of providing children with equal opportunities to grow and prosper.
Childhood & Early Life
Ruby Bridges was born as Ruby Nell Bridges on September 8, 1954 in Tylertown, Mississippi, to Abon and Lucille Bridges as the eldest of the four kids.
Since her family had been sharecroppers, they moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, in search of a better living, when she was four. This was the same time when blacks were largely discriminated from the whites.
To support the increasing expenses, her father sought employment as a service station attendant, while her mother started working in night shifts.
Even though she lived just five blocks away from an all-white school, she had to walk several miles ahead to attend an all-black school.
Of the six students who successfully passed the National Association from the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) test in 1960 to attend an all-white school, she was the only student who chose William Franz Elementary School.
On November 14, 1960, she became the first African-American to go to an all-white school in the Southern United States (or the South), thus integrating a white school and changing the face of the prevailing education system.
On her first day at school, Bridges and her mother were escorted by four US marshals, fearing protest from the white parents, as none of them wanted their kids to study with a black girl.
On the second day, it was assumed that she wouldn’t be able to attend classes as all teachers refused to accept her. However, Barbara Henry, a new teacher from Boston, Massachusetts, came forward and accepted her with open arms.
She was her teacher’s sole student for the entire year. Her loving nature and support helped her with problems faced in the curriculum as well as the hostility for being born a black.
On being threatened to be poisoned by a different woman each day at school, President Eisenhower ordered the four US marshals deployed by him to ensure that Ruby only consumed food brought from home.
Her family, too, suffered the impact of her admission to a white school. Her father lost his job, her mother could no longer shop at her regular grocery store and her grandparents were thrown out from the land they lived on for years.
Things began to change towards the end of the first year, when students in her grade started returning to school. By the beginning of second year, everything seemed to have calmed down.
Bridges wasn’t anymore a single student in her class, as there were over 20 students in her second grade class and she gradually accustomed herself to the changing environment.
She finished grammar school at William Franz Elementary School and took admission in another integrated high school, Francis T. Nicholls High School.
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She completed her graduation from Kansas City Business School in travel and tourism. After graduation, she took the job of a world travel agent in American Express.
In 1993, when her brother Milton was killed in a drug-related issue, she adopted his four daughters and enrolled them in William Franz Elementary School.
She started volunteering at William Franz for thrice a week and became a parent-community liaison. She gained instant popularity and got to reunite with her first teacher, Henry, through Coles’ book on her, on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
In 1999, Bridges established The Ruby Bridges Foundation to support and encourage parents to educate their children as a need to end racism and promote equal rights for one and all.
Awards & Achievements
On January 8, 2001, the US President Bill Clinton honored her with the Presidential Citizens Medal for her undying courage and strength.
In 2007, an exhibition depicting the lives of Ruby Bridges, Anne Frank and Ryan White was held by Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.
On May 2012, Tulane University, New Orleans, conferred upon her an Honorary Degree at the annual graduation ceremony, organized at Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1984, Bridges was married to Malcolm Hall, thus becoming Ruby Nell Bridges Hall. The couple, along with their four sons, lives in New Orleans.
Her bravery, when escorted by four US marshals on her first day at school, inspired painter Norman Rockwell to create the painting ‘The Problem We All Live With’, which became the cover page of Look magazine in January 1964.
Child psychiatrist Robert Coles, who counseled her during her first year at school for the ever-increasing riots and protests against her, penned a children’s book titled ‘The Story of Ruby Bridges’, in 1995, as an inspiration for other students.
The 1998 made-for-TV movie ’Ruby Bridges’ was filmed on the struggle and ignorance faced by her at William Franz Elementary School.
A new elementary school was opened in her honor by the Alameda Unified School District, in October 2006.
In 2011, Mario Chiodo unveiled the ‘Remember Them’ humanitarian monument at St. Paul’s Episcopal School, which included a statue of young Bridges.
When she arrived at the school on her first day, she misinterpreted the large crowds of protesters as a Mardi Gras celebration, an annual carnival held in New Orleans.
Barbara Henry had to pay a heavy price for supporting Ruby by sacrificing her job. Her contract wasn’t renewed and hence, had to return to Boston with her husband.
As a result of being the only student in the class, she was stressed to such an extent that she stopped eating her lunch and hid it in the storage cabinet. Discovered by a janitor, Mrs. Henry started giving her company during lunch.