Ruby Bridges is one of the Black activists seldom talked about – and sadly so. Even many students of Black history are not familiar with her name and are unaware of her contribution to the fight against racism.
The civil rights movement in America was one that experienced great solidarity from many activists – both old and young. While there are some names that come to mind and are often celebrated, there are some others who aren’t.
Bridges is one of the unsung heroes of the civil rights movement. At the tender age of six, Ruby Bridges played a major role in advancing the cause of civil rights in America.
In November 1960, a six-year-old Ruby Bridges became the first African American student to integrate into an elementary school in the South. At that time, every form of education – from elementary to tertiary, experienced segregation – and many schools in the South were ‘Whites-only.’
But although she was born into the norm, Ruby reused to be defined by it. In 1960, she integrated a ‘Whites-only’ elementary school in the South. Her action went down in history as a defining moment for education and played a vital role in ending segregation in the American educational system.
Who Was Ruby Bridges?
Ruby Bridges was born on September 8, 1954. She was the oldest of five children for Lucille and Abon Bridges, who were farmers in Tylertown, Mississippi.
When she was two years old, her parents moved to New Orleans, with the entire family, in search of work.
Interestingly, Ruby was born in the same year in which the famous US Supreme Court landmark ruling ended racial segregation in public schools.
Ruby Bridges’ Road to Civil Rights Activism
Despite the ruling, southern states continued to resist integration and practiced segregation. Up until 1959, Ruby and other Black children had no other option but to attend segregated kindergarten schools in New Orleans.
However, after a court ruling in 1960 ordered schools in the Louisiana district to desegregate, schools were mandated to allow Black kids into their premises. In order to prevent this from happening, the school district organized difficult entrance exams for the Black kids.
Their aim was to prove that the Black kids did not have the academic capabilities to learn at the same level as the White kids – who had better educational backgrounds in the segregated schools. But to the surprise of the district supervisors, Ruby and five other kids passed the exams in flying colours.
The Decision: To Be or Not To Be?
Ruby’s parents did not expect her to pass the examination. They were torn about whether to let her attend the all-white William Frantz Elementary School, which was a few blocks from their home.
Her father was not in support of the decision. He was scared for his daughter’s safety – and rightly so. But her mother insisted that she wanted Ruby to have the right educational opportunities, which her parents were denied.
Even the school district – which did not expect any Black kid to pass the tough exams, delayed the admission as much as they could. In fact, due to the delay, two of the other students who also passed the exams decided not to leave their school at all. The other three students were sent to McDonough Elementary School.
But finally, Ruby was admitted, and it wasn’t for her and her parents – as expected.
The Pains of Civil Rights Activism
According to reports, Ruby and her mother were escorted by four federal marshals to the school every day that year. She walked past crowds screaming vicious slurs at her. Undeterred, she later said she only became frightened when she saw a woman holding a black baby doll in a coffin.
She 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.
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: Abon lost his job, and grocery stores refused to sell to Lucille. Her share-cropping grandparents were evicted from the farm where they had lived for a quarter-century.
How Did Ruby Bridges Turn Out?
After graduation, Ruby would go on to graduate from a desegregated high school and became a travel agent. She got married and was blessed with four sons.
She was reunited with her first teacher, Barbara Henry, in the mid-1990s, and for a time, the pair did speaking engagements together. Ruby later wrote about her early experiences in two books and received the Carter G. Woodson Book Award.
She remains a vocal activist for racial equality. In 1999, Ruby established The Ruby Bridges Foundation to promote tolerance and create change through education. In 2000, she was made an honorary deputy marshal in Washington, DC.