Ruby Bridges: the six-year-old who defied a mob and desegregated her school

In 1960, she walked past hateful protesters to become the first Black child at a Louisiana school – and was then taught alone for a year. She discusses fear, forbearance and her fight for a better future

by Steve Rose

This year, Ruby Bridges saw some newly discovered video footage of her six-year-old self and was terrified for her. The footage was from 14 November 1960, a day that shaped the course of Bridges’ life and – it is no exaggeration to say – American history. Not that she was aware of it at the time. On that day she became the first Black child to attend an all-white primary school in Louisiana.

Looking at images of Bridges’ first day at William Frantz elementary school in New Orleans, she is a study in vulnerability: a tiny girl in her smart new uniform, with white socks and white ribbons in her hair, flanked by four huge federal agents in suits. Awaiting her at the school gates was a phalanx of rabidly hostile protesters, mostly white parents and children, plus photographers and reporters. They yelled names and racial slurs, chanted, and waved placards. One sign read: “All I want for Christmas is a clean white school.” One woman held up a miniature coffin with a black doll in it. It has become one of the defining images of the civil rights movement, popularised even further by Norman Rockwell’s recreation of it in his 1964 painting The Problem We All Live With.

The confrontation was expected. Three months before Bridges was born, the US supreme court had issued its landmark Brown v Board of Education ruling, outlawing segregation in schools nationwide. Six years later, though, states in the south were stubbornly refusing to act upon it. When nine African American children enrolled at the Little Rock school in Arkansas in 1957, it had caused an uproar. President Eisenhower had to call in federal troops to escort the children through a mob gathered outside the school. Three years later it was Louisiana’s turn. Bridges was one of six Black children to pass a test to gain access to formerly all-white schools. But two of the children dropped out and three went, on the same day, to a different school. So Bridges was all on her own.

Many have read resolve or defiance into Bridges’ demeanour that day, but the explanation is far simpler. “I was really not aware that I was going into a white school,” she says. “My parents never explained it to me. I stumbled into crowds of people, and living here in New Orleans, being accustomed to Mardi Gras, the huge celebration that takes place in the city every year, I really thought that’s what it was that day. There was no need for me to be afraid of that.”

Watching the footage of that day 60 years later, Bridges’ reaction was very different. “It was just mind-blowing, horrifying,” she says. “I had feelings that I’d never had before … And I thought to myself: ‘I cannot even fathom me now, today, as a parent and grandparent, sending my child into an environment like that.’”

Ruby Bridges: ‘I cannot even fathom me now, today, sending my child into an environment like that.’

Bridges, 66, can understand her own parents’ actions, though. They grew up as sharecroppers (poor tenant farmers) in rural Mississippi in the pre-civil rights era before moving to New Orleans in 1958. “They were not allowed to go to school every day,” she says. “Neither one of them had a formal education. If it was time for them to get the crops in, or to work, school was a luxury; that was something they couldn’t do. So they really wanted opportunities for their children that they were not allowed to have.”

Bridges’ parents paid a high price for their decision. Her mother, who had been the chief advocate for her attending the white school, lost her job as a domestic worker. Her father, a Korean war veteran who worked as a service-station attendant, also lost his job on account of the Bridges’ newfound notoriety. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which had played a big part in Bridges’ case, advised him not to go out and look for work, for his own safety. “That in itself caused a lot of tension,” she says, “because I’m the oldest of eight, and at that point he was no longer able to provide for his family. So they were solely dependent on donations and people that would help them.” The local corner store refused to serve them. Even her sharecropper grandparents were made to move from their farm in Mississippi. Her parents eventually separated. “I remember writing a letter to Santa Claus and asking him to give my father’s job back, and that he didn’t have a job because I was going to the school. So I guess somehow I did feel some blame for it.”

Life at her new school was no easier for Bridges. For the first year, she needed federal protection every day since protesters were always at the school gates, including the woman with the doll in a coffin. “That I used to have nightmares about,” she says. “I would dream that the coffin was flying around my bedroom at night.” Bridges had to bring her own lunch every day for fear of being poisoned. The white parents all withdrew their children from the school, and the staff refused to teach Bridges, except for one teacher: Barbara Henry, who had come from Boston. For the first year, Henry taught Bridges alone, just the two of them in the classroom. “We knew we had to be there for each other,” says Bridges.

Bridges had another ally outside the school: Robert Coles, a white child psychiatrist who had witnessed the scenes outside the school, and volunteered to support her and her family, visiting the home on a weekly basis. Coles went on to establish a career studying the effects of desegregation on schoolchildren. It later emerged that it was one of his relatives who had sent Bridges her smart school clothes, which her family could never have afforded.

Things changed gradually. Over the course of that first year, a few white parents let their children back into the school. At first they were kept separate from Bridges. “The principal, who was part of the opposition, would take the kids and she would hide them, so that they would never come in contact with me.” Towards the end of the first year, however, on Henry’s insistence, Bridges was finally allowed to be part of a small class with other six-year-olds. “A little boy then said to me: ‘My mom said not to play with you because you’re a nigger,’” Bridges recalls. “And the minute he said that, it was like everything came together. All the little pieces that I’d been collecting in my mind all fit, and I then understood: the reason why there’s no kids here is because of me, and the color of my skin. That’s why I can’t go to recess. And it’s not Mardi Gras. It all sort of came together: a very rude awakening. I often say today that really was my first introduction to racism.”

It was also an insight into the origins of racism, she later realised. “The way that I was brought up, if my parents had said: ‘Don’t play with him – he’s white, he’s Asian, he’s Hispanic, he’s Indian, he’s whatever – I would not have played with him.” The little boy wasn’t being knowingly racist towards her; he was simply explaining why he couldn’t play with her. “Which leads me to my point that racism is learned behaviour. We pass it on to our kids, and it continues from one generation to the next. That moment proved that to me.”

By the time Bridges returned to the school for the second year, the furore had pretty much died down. There were no protests, she was in a normal-sized class with other children, predominantly white but with a few more African Americans. The overall situation had improved, although Bridges was upset that Henry had left the school (they have remained lifelong friends). Thanks to Henry’s teaching, Bridges spoke with a strong Boston accent, for which she was criticised by her teacher – one of those who had refused to teach her the year before. Every year, though, more and more Black students came to the school. By the time she moved on, high schools had been desegregated for nearly a decade, although Black and white pupils still did not mix. The south’s racist legacy was still close to the surface: her high school was named after a former Confederate general, Francis T Nicholls. Its sports teams were named the Rebels, and had a Confederate flag on their badge, which the Black students fought to change. (The school was renamed Frederick Douglass high school in the 1990s, and its teams are now the Bobcats.)

Bridges says she did not have much of a career plan when she finished school. “I was really more focused on how to get out of Louisiana. I knew that there was something more than what I was exposed to right there in my community.” She first applied for jobs as a flight attendant, then became a travel agent for American Express for 15 years, during which time she got to travel the world.

By her mid-30s, Bridges had satisfied her wanderlust and was married (to Malcolm Hall, in 1984) with four sons. But she felt restless. “I was asking myself: ‘What am I doing? Am I doing something really meaningful?’ I really wanted to know what my purpose was in life.” In 1993, Bridges’ brother was shot dead on a New Orleans street. For a time she cared for his four daughters, who also attended William Frantz elementary school. Then in 1995, Coles, now a Harvard professor, published his children’s book The Story of Ruby Bridges, which brought her back into the public eye. People in New Orleans had never really talked about her story, Bridges explains, in the same way that, for years, people in Dallas didn’t talk about the Kennedy assassination. “You have to understand, we didn’t have Black History Month during that time. It wasn’t like I could pick up a textbook and open it up and read about myself.” Bridges helped promote Coles’ book, talking in schools across the US. It became a bestseller. A few years later, Disney made a biopic of Bridges, on which she acted as a consultant. “I think everybody started to realize that me, Ruby Bridges, was actually the same little girl as in the Norman Rockwell painting.”