On November 14, 1960—52 years ago today—Ruby Bridges became the first African American child to attend an all-white elementary school in the South, when court-ordered integration in New Orleans, Louisiana, allowed her to enroll at William Frantz Elementary School. On the same day, three other African American students together integrated another previously all-white elementary school in New Orleans.
It had been more than six years since the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education declared segregated public schools unconstitutional, but school districts across the South still resisted integration.
During the spring of 1960, Bridges’ parents had responded to requests from the NAACP for children to participate in the integration of the New Orleans Schools. After a test, six children were chosen to integrate the schools; two decided to remain in their old schools and three were transferred to integrate another school, McDonough No. 19. This left Bridges the sole African American student assigned to William Frantz Elementary. November 14 was set as the date when the four students would integrate the two schools.
That day, U.S. Marshals escorted six-year-old Bridges to her new school amid a large and loud crowd surrounded by police officers on horseback. It certainly was not a smooth transition at either school; white parents pulled their children out of school, and a new teacher had to be hired to teach only Bridges once all the other teachers refused. Bridges, at only six years old, endured constant hostility and threats.
The trouble was not confined to the school; Bridges’ father lost his job, and her grandparents, both sharecroppers, were turned off their land. Friends and family, though, both white and African American, supported Bridges and her family, protecting them and helping her father find a new job.
Fortunately, Bridges’ experience with her teacher, Barbara Henry, was excellent. She was Henry’s sole pupil that year, and Henry provided her not only with an education but with support. Bridges stayed at William Frantz Elementary through the sixth grade, and each year more African American students joined her.
She eventually returned to the school as a volunteer parent liaison after she took over guardianship of her deceased brother’s children. Bridges continues to travel around the country and observe how the civil rights movement is taught in schools. In 1999, she founded the Ruby Bridges Foundation to promote tolerance and respect.
Over the years, Bridges has been portrayed in multiple forms of media, such as the 1998 made-for-television movie Ruby Bridges and Lori McKenna’s song “Ruby’s Shoes.” Her first day of school was portrayed by Norman Rockwell in his 1964 painting “The Problem We All Live With.”
Bridges’ courage is still remembered today, more than five decades later. In 2001, President Clinton included Bridges among 28 recipients of the Presidential Citizens Medal (also included in the list were Irene Morgan, Constance Baker Motley, and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth). A school district later dedicated an elementary school to her, and Tulane University granted her an honorary degree earlier this year.
The school Bridges integrated eventually underwent significant demographic changes, becoming mostly African American. Bridges and others successfully had the school recognized on the National Register of Historic Places; however, just a few months later, the school closed after Hurricane Katrina damaged the building. Bridges wasn’t going to watch this important landmark disappear, though; the Recovery School District refurbished the school. Bridges remains active in the school, advocating the teaching of history and focusing on community service and social justice. (To learn more about this, check out this Washington Post article.)
Robert Coles, a child psychiatrist who volunteered to meet weekly with Bridges during her first year of school, later wrote a children’s book entitled The Story of Ruby Bridges.
To learn more, and to read Bridges’ memories, check out this article from CBS News and this PBS story. For newspaper coverage of that first day, check out this Associated Press article.
To learn more, check out Bridges’ children’s books, Through My Eyes (Scholastic 1999), Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story (Scholastic 2009), and Let’s Read About . . . Ruby Bridges (Scholastic 2003).
In this 2010 Washington Post article, Bridges shares her memories of her first days of school.
To learn more about the integration of New Orleans’ public schools, check out this collection from the Civil Rights Digital Library.
In her children’s book, Remember: The Journey to School Integration (Houghton Mifflin 2004), which includes numerous archival photographs depicting school desegregation, Toni Morrison presented a fictional account of the dialogue and emotions of the children who lived during this era.
To learn about racial and economic school resegregation, check out John Boger and Gary Orfield’s edited volume School Resegregation: Must the South Turn Back? (UNC Press 2005).
To learn more about the fight for integration, check out Mark Tushnet’s The NAACP’s Legal Strategy against Segregated Education, 1925-1950 (UNC Press, 2005).