One small step, by one brave little girl helped make it possible for one of the most striking historical images of President Biden’s state of the union address. The little girl in the top photos is that of Ruby Bridges, the first African American, to attend a white elementary school in the deep South, 1960.
The image of two women below; one a woman of color, the other the daughter of Italian Immigrants, both for the first time -women- in the chairs behind the president. The chairs historically are filled by the vice president and speaker. Tonight, 4/28/2021 is the first time both roles are held by women; a woman of color and the daughter of an immigrant — Kamala Harris and Nancy Pelosi.
Ruby Bridges and her place in our history
Judge J. Skelly Wright’s court order for the first day of integrated schools in New Orleans on Monday, November 14, 1960
At the early age of only six years old, Ruby Bridges advanced the cause of civil rights in that November 1960, she became the first African American student to integrate an elementary school in the South.
Born on September 8, 1954, Bridges was the oldest of five children for Lucille and Abon Bridges, farmers in Tylertown, Mississippi. When Ruby was two years old, her parents moved their family to New Orleans, Louisiana in search of better work opportunities. Ruby’s birth year coincided with the US Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka Kansas, which ended racial segregation in public schools.
Nonetheless, southern states continued to resist integration, and in 1959, Ruby attended a segregated New Orleans kindergarten. A year later, however, a federal court ordered Louisiana to desegregate. The school district created entrance exams for African American students to see whether they could compete academically at the all-white school. Ruby and five other students passed the exam.
Her parents were torn about whether to let her attend the all-white William Frantz Elementary School, a few blocks from their home. Her father resisted, fearing for his daughter’s safety; her mother, however, wanted Ruby to have the educational opportunities that her parents had been denied. Meanwhile, the school district dragged its feet, delaying her admittance until November 14. Two of the other students decided not to leave their school at all; the other three were sent to the all-white McDonough Elementary School.
Judge J. Skelly Wright’s court ordered the first day of integrated schools in New Orleans to be Monday, November 14, 1960. The historic day was documented in newspapers and magazines around the US.
Bridges described her first day of school, “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, however I was soon to find out this demonstration was not a celebration and certainly was not the party atmosphere of the Mardi Gras.”
Retired, former United States Deputy Marshal Charles Burks recalled, “She showed a lot of courage. She never cried. She did not whimper. She just marched along like a little soldier, and we’re all immensely proud of her.” She was escorted and supported by the Federal US Marshals Service for over a year till things finaly stabilized and the people of New Orleans accepted integration as the law of the land.
Little Ms. Bridges spent her first day in the principal’s office due to the chaos created as angry white parents pulled their children from school. Ardent segregationists withdrew their children permanently.
Barbara Henry, a white Boston native, was the only teacher willing to accept Ruby, and all year, she was a class of one. Ruby ate lunch alone and sometimes played with her teacher at recess, but she never missed a day of school that year.
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 five-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.
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 Bridges 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. Coles donated the royalties from the sale of that book to the Ruby Bridges Foundation, to provide money for school supplies or other educational needs for impoverished New Orleans school children.
While some families supported her bravery—and some northerners sent money to aid her family—others protested throughout the city. The Bridges family suffered for their courage.
The Bridges family suffered for their decision to send her to William Frantz Elementary: her father lost his job as a gas station attendant; the grocery store the family shopped at would no longer let them shop there; her grandparents, who were sharecroppers in Mississippi, were turned off their land; and Abon and Lucille Bridges separated. Bridges 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.
It was not until Bridges was an adult that she learned that the immaculate clothing she wore to school in those first weeks at Frantz was sent to her family by a relative of Coles. Bridges says her family could never have afforded the dresses, socks, and shoes that are documented in photographs of her escort by U.S. Marshals to and from the school.
In 1964, artist Norman Rockwell celebrated her courage with a painting of that first day entitled, “The Problem We All Live With.” The commemorated painting by Norman Rockwell titled The Problem We All Live With was published in Look magazine on January 14, 1964.
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 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 Bridges was portrayed by actress Chaz Monet, and the movie also featured Lela Rochon as Bridges’ mother, Lucille “Lucy” Bridges; Michael Beach as Bridges’ father, Abon Bridges; Penelope Ann Miller as Bridges’ teacher, Mrs. Henry; and Kevin Pollak as Dr. Robert Coles.
Like hundreds of thousands of others in the greater New Orleans area, Bridges lost her home (in Eastern New Orleans) to catastrophic flooding from the failure of the levee system during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Hurricane Katrina also greatly damaged William Frantz Elementary School, and Bridges played a significant role in fighting for the school to remain open.
In November 2007, the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis unveiled a new permanent exhibit documenting her life, along with the lives of Anne Frank and Ryan White. The exhibit, called “The Power of Children: Making a Difference”, cost $6 million to install and includes an authentic re-creation of Bridges’ first grade classroom.
In 2010, Bridges had a 50th-year reunion at William Frantz Elementary with Pam Foreman Testroet, who had been, at the age of five, 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”. The Rockwell painting was displayed in the West Wing of the White House, just outside the Oval Office, from June through October 2011.
In November 2020 there was an image created of Bridges as a child and Kamala Harris that went viral and made a powerful statement to all that witnessed it. The image is simple: Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, clad in a dark suit and heels, strides past a wall with her eyes locked on the horizon. The shadow she casts is that of then-6-year-old Ruby Bridges, who integrated her New Orleans elementary school in 1960. The artist behind the widely shared image is Bria Goeller, who graduated with highest honors from Emory College of Arts and Sciences in December 2019. She designed the artwork in October for Carl Gordon Jones, founder and owner of the satirical clothing group WTF America-Good Trubble.
Goeller’s design showcasing the parallels between two Black women’s strength in the face of opposition took off Saturday, shared tens of thousands of times after media outlets projected Joe Biden as the winner of the presidential election and Harris was declared the vice president-elect. Bridges, herself shared it on her personal Instagram, as did Kara Walker, the Black artist best known for her work with silhouettes. Bridges thanked Goeller, and Good Trubble “for the inspirational and beautiful artwork.” Tagging Harris and Biden in her post, she wrote, “I am honored to be a part of this path and grateful to stand alongside you, together with our fellow Americans, as we step into this next chapter of American history!”
On this evening as President Biden presents his state of the union address the memory of his speech may not be so much the content of his speech or the proposals to move America forward but the speech will go down historically as significant to the history of the US with the two women on the platform behind the president. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House and a child of an immigrant and Vice President Kamala Harris, the first person of color to sit in that prestigious seat.
We wonder as Vice President Harris looked at her shadow from the camera lights on the wall this historic evening; did she indeed pause for a moment, and see her own reflection, or did she see the reflection of Ruby Bridges and her small step from 1960 that paved the way for Ms. Harris spot in history today.
These two women- bright, committed, positive and successful demonstrate the power of action and how, small actions we do today, may impact the history of an unconnected stranger decades down the road. The historical significance of 11/14/1960 and 4/28/21 shows the destiny of the two amazing passionate women of color intertwined and bound by destiny.