The Times-Picayune is marking the tricentennial of New Orleans with its ongoing 300 for 300 project, running through 2018 and highlighting 300 people who have made New Orleans New Orleans, featuring original artwork commissioned by NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune with Where Y’Art gallery. Today: Ruby Bridges.
The icon: Ruby Bridges
The legacy: The hatred directed at Ruby Bridges as she walked into William Frantz Elementary school in September 1960 would have caused many adults to break – to say nothing of the average 6-year-old. To the mob yelling at her, the black first-grader in patent leather shoes and bobby socks was a threat to their beliefs in white supremacy and segregation, and, indeed, she did signal and represent an irreversible change in the New Orleans public schools. Bridges kept quiet as she daily walked that gantlet of hate, except for one time when she appeared to stop and address her tormentors. “I wasn’t talking,” she told the teacher who asked what she’d said. “I was praying for them.”
The artist: Jessica Strahan, WhereYart.net.
The quote: “Our Ruby taught us all a lot. She became someone who helped change the country. She was a part of history, just like generals and presidents are part of history. They are leaders, and so was Ruby. She led us away from hate, and she led us nearer to knowing each other, the white folks and the black folks.” – Lucille Bridges, mother of Ruby Bridges, talking to author Robert Coles
Explore more of Jessica Strahan’s work online at WhereYart.net and in person at the Where Y’Art gallery, 1901 Royal Street in the Marigny.
- Photographs of the tiny Ruby Bridges being escorted into school by burly federal marshals inspired a now-famous 1964 painting by Norman Rockwell. Titled “The Problem We All Live With,” it was originally published for Look magazine.
- Rockwell’s painting hung for a time in the Obama White House in 2011, just outside the Oval Office.
- Three other black girls — first-graders Leona Tate, Tessie Prevost and Gail Etienne — integrated McDonogh No. 19 Elementary School the same day that Bridges entered Frantz.
- At both schools, parents began withdrawing their children as soon as the school day started. Despite fears, however, there was no violence. With that, The Times-Picayune reported in the next morning’s paper, “desegregation of schools here was a fact.”
- Bridges would later say that upon first seeing the crowd of protesters gathered at the school on her first day, she thought they must have been there for a Mardi Gras parade.
- Bridges’ mother told her that if she got scared, she should just say her prayers. “That was how I started praying on the way to school,” Bridges later wrote. “The things people yelled at me didn’t seem to touch me. Prayer was my protection.”
- Barbara Henry was the only teacher at the school willing to teach Bridges. So, for the entire school year, she taught Bridges one-on-one.
- “My first moments with Ruby are as clear today as they were then,” Henry told the Boston Globe in 2014. “This beautiful little black girl, all dressed in pink. The only clue she was going to school and not to a party was she had her school bag and lunchbox. When kids are shy, they raise their heads a little bit. But enough for me to see her beautiful brown eyes and magnetic smile. I just fell in love with Ruby. How could your heart not be taken by a scene like that?”
- In 1999, Bridges, who still lives in New Orleans, founded the Ruby Bridges Foundation to promote “”the values of tolerance, respect, and appreciation of all differences.”
- Frantz was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005, and a bronze statue of the young Bridges was unveiled there in 2014, on the 54th anniversary of her enrollment.
- Ruby Bridges Elementary School in Alameda, California, is named in Bridges’ honor.