Ruby Bridges in 2010
September 8, 1954 |
Tylertown, Mississippi, U.S.
Ruby Nell Bridges Hall (born September 8, 1954) is an American civil rights activist. She was the first African-American child to desegregate the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana during the New Orleans school desegregation crisis in 1960.
Ruby Bridges was the oldest of five children born to Abon and Lucille Bridges. As a child, she spent much time taking care of her younger siblings, though she also enjoyed playing jump rope, softball and climbing trees. When she was four years old, the family relocated from Tylertown, Mississippi, where Ruby was born, to New Orleans, Louisiana. In 1960, when she was six years old, her parents responded to a request from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and volunteered her to participate in the integration of the New Orleans school system, even though her father was hesitant.
Ruby was born during the middle of the Civil Rights Movement. Brown v. Board of Education was decided eight months and nine days after Ruby's birth. The famous court ruling declared the process of separating schools for Black children and White children unconstitutional. Though the Brown v. Board of Education decision was finalized in 1954, southern states were extremely resistant to the decision that they must integrate for the six following years. Many white people did not want schools to be integrated and, though it was a federal ruling, state governments were not doing their part in enforcing the new laws. In 1957, federal troops stationed in Little Rock, Arkansas order to combat violence that occurred as a result of the decision. Under significant pressure from the federal government, the school board administered an entrance exam to students at Ruby's school with the intention of keeping Black people out of White schools.
In early 1960, Bridges was one of six black children in New Orleans to pass the test that determined whether they could go to the all-white school, William Frantz Elementary. Two of the six decided to stay at their old school, Bridges went to a school by herself, and three children were transferred to McDonogh No. 19 and became known as the McDonogh Three. Bridges and her mother were escorted to school by four federal marshals during the first day that Bridges attended William Frantz Elementary. In the following days of that year, federal marshals continue to escort Ruby, though her mom stayed behind to take care of her younger siblings.
Ruby's father was initially reluctant, but her mother felt strongly that the move was needed not only to give her own daughter a better education, but to "take this step forward ... for all African-American children". Her mother finally convinced her father to let her go to the school.
Judge J. Skelly Wright's court order for the first day of integrated schools in New Orleans on Monday, November 14, 1960, was commemorated by Norman Rockwell in the painting, The Problem We All Live With (published in Look magazine on January 14, 1964). As Bridges describes it, "Driving up I could see the crowd, but living in New Orleans, I actually thought it was Mardi Gras. There was a large crowd of people outside of the school. They were throwing things and shouting, and that sort of goes on in New Orleans at Mardi Gras." Former United States Deputy Marshal Charles Burks later recalled, "She showed a lot of courage. She never cried. She didn't whimper. She just marched along like a little soldier, and we're all very very proud of her."
As soon as Bridges entered the school, white parents pulled their own children out; all the teachers except for one refused to teach while a black child was enrolled. Only one person agreed to teach Ruby and that was Barbara Henry, from Boston, Massachusetts, and for over a year Henry taught her alone, "as if she were teaching a whole class."
That first day, Bridges and her mother spent the entire day in the principal's office; the chaos of the school prevented their moving to the classroom until the second day. On the second day, however, a white student broke the boycott and entered the school when a 34-year-old Methodist minister, Lloyd Anderson Foreman, walked his 5-year-old daughter Pam through the angry mob, saying, "I simply want the privilege of taking my child to school ..." A few days later, other white parents began bringing their children, and the protests began to subside. Yet, still, Ruby remained the only child in her class, as she would until the following year. Every morning, as Bridges walked to school, one woman would threaten to poison her, while another held up a black baby doll in a coffin; because of this, the U.S. Marshals dispatched by President Eisenhower, who were overseeing her safety, allowed Ruby to eat only the food that she brought from home.
Child psychiatrist Robert Coles volunteered to provide counseling to Bridges during her first year at Frantz. He met with her weekly in the Bridges home, later writing a children's book, The Story of Ruby Bridges, to acquaint other children with Bridges' story.
The Bridges family suffered for their decision to send her to William Frantz Elementary: her father, whose parents were sharecroppers, lost his job as a gas station attendant, the grocery store the family shopped at would no longer let them shop there, and her grandparents, who were sharecroppers in Mississippi, were turned off their land. She has noted that many others in the community, both black and white, showed support in a variety of ways. Some white families continued to send their children to Frantz despite the protests, a neighbor provided her father with a new job, and local people babysat, watched the house as protectors, and walked behind the federal marshals' car on the trips to school.
Bridges, now Ruby Bridges Hall, still lives in New Orleans with her husband, Malcolm Hall, and their four sons. After graduating from a desegregated high school, she worked as a travel agent for 15 years and later became a full-time parent. She is now chair of the Ruby Bridges Foundation, which she formed in 1999 to promote "the values of tolerance, respect, and appreciation of all differences". Describing the mission of the group, she says, "racism is a grown-up disease and we must stop using our children to spread it."
Bridges Hall is the subject of the Lori McKenna song "Ruby's Shoes". Her childhood struggle at William Frantz Elementary School was portrayed in the 1998 made-for-TV movie Ruby Bridges. The young Ruby Bridges was portrayed by actress Chaz Monet, and the movie also featured Lela Rochon as Ruby's mother, Lucille "Lucy" Bridges; Michael Beach as Ruby's father, Abon Bridges; Penelope Ann Miller as Ruby's teacher, Mrs. Henry; and Kevin Pollak as Dr. Robert Coles.
Like hundreds of thousands of others in the greater New Orleans area, Bridges Hall lost her home (in Eastern New Orleans) to the catastrophic flooding in the failure of the levee system during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Hurricane Katrina also significantly damaged William Frantz Elementary School, and Ruby played a significant role in fighting for the school to remain open. 
In October 2006, the Alameda Unified School District in California dedicated a new elementary school to Ruby Bridges, and issued a proclamation in her honor, and in November that year she was honored in the Anti-Defamation League's Concert Against Hate. In 2007, the Children's Museum of Indianapolis unveiled a new exhibit documenting her life, along with the lives of Anne Frank and Ryan White.
In 2010, Ruby had a 50th year reunion at William Frantz Elementary with Pam Foreman Testroet, who, at age five, was the first white child to break the boycott that ensued from Bridges' attendance at that school.
On July 15, 2011, Bridges met with President Barack Obama at the White House, and while viewing the Norman Rockwell painting of her on display he told her, "I think it's fair to say that if it hadn't been for you guys, I might not be here and we wouldn't be looking at this together."
In 2014, a statue of Bridges was unveiled in the courtyard of William Frantz Elementary School.