Biography of Ruby Bridges: Civil Rights Movement Hero (2024)

Ruby Bridges (born Sept. 8, 1954), the subject of an iconic painting by Norman Rockwell, was only 6 years old when she received national attention for desegregating an elementary school in New Orleans. In her pursuit of a quality education during a time when Black people were treated as second-class citizens, little Bridges became a civil rights icon.

When Bridges visited the White House on July 16, 2011, then-President Barack Obama told her, "I wouldn't be here today" without her early contributions to the civil rights movement. Bridges has published several books about her experiences and she continues to speak about racial equality to this day.

Fast Facts: Ruby Bridges

  • Known For:First Blackchild to attend the all-WhiteWilliam Frantz Elementary SchoolinLouisiana
  • Also Known As: Ruby Nell Bridges Hall
  • Born: Sept. 8, 1954 in Tylertown, Mississippi
  • Parents: Lucille and Abon Bridges
  • Published Works: "Through My Eyes," "This is Your Time," "Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story"
  • Spouse: Malcolm Hall(m. 1984)
  • Children: Sean,Craig, andChristopher Hall
  • Notable Quote: "Go where there is no path and begin the trail.When you start a new trail equipped with courage, strength and conviction, the only thing that can stop you is you!"

Early Life

Ruby Nell Bridges was born on Sept. 8, 1954 in a cabin in Tylertown, Mississippi. Her mother, Lucille Bridges, was the daughter of sharecroppers and had little education because she worked in the fields. Sharecropping, a system of agriculture instituted in the American South during the period ofReconstructionafter theCivil War, perpetuated racial inequality. Under this system, a landlord—often the former White enslaver of Black people—would allow tenants, often formerly enslaved people, to work the land in exchange for a share of the crop. But restrictive laws and practices would leave tenants in debt and tied to the land and landlord, just as much as they had been when they were bound to the plantation and the enslaver.

Lucille sharecropped with her husband, Abon Bridges, and her father-in-law until the family moved to New Orleans. In New Orleans, Lucille worked nights at various jobs so she could take care of her family during the day while Abon worked as a gas station attendant.

School Desegregation

In 1954, just four months before Bridges was born, the Supreme Court ruled that legally mandated segregation in public schools violated the 14th Amendment, making it unconstitutional. But the landmark Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, didn’t lead to immediate change. Schools in the mostly Southern states where segregation was enforced by law often resisted integration, and New Orleans was no different.

Bridges had attended an all-Black school for kindergarten, but as the next school year began, New Orleans' all-White schools were required to enroll Black students—this was six years after the Brown decision. Bridges was one of six Black girls in kindergarten who were chosen to be the first such students. The children had been given both educational and psychological tests to ensure they could succeed, since many White people thought Black people were less intelligent.

Her family was not sure they wanted their daughter to be subjected to the backlash that would occur upon Bridges' entrance into an otherwise all-White school. Her mother, though, became convinced that it would improve her child's educational prospects. After much discussion, both parents agreed to allow Bridges to take the risk of integrating a White school for “all black children.”

Integrating William Frantz Elementary

On that November morning in 1960, Bridges was the only Black child assigned to the William Frantz Elementary School.The first day, a crowd shouting angrily surrounded the school. Bridges and her mother entered the building with the help of four federal marshals and spent the day sitting in the principal’s office.

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By the second day, all the White families with children in the first-grade class had withdrawn them from school. In addition, the first-grade teacher had opted to resign rather than teach a Black child. An educator named Barbara Henry was called to take over the class. Although she did not know it would be integrated, Henry supported that arrangement and taught Bridges as a class of one for the rest of the year.

Henry did not allow Bridges to play on the playground for fear for her safety. She also forbade Bridges from eating in the cafeteria due to concerns that someone might poison the first grader. In essence, Bridges was segregated—even if it was for her own safety—from White students.

Bridges' integration of William Frantz Elementary School received national media attention. News coverage of her efforts brought the image of the little girl escorted to school by federal marshals into the public consciousness. Artist Norman Rockwell illustrated Bridges' walk to school for a 1964 Look magazine cover, titling it “The Problem We All Live With.”

When Bridges began second grade, the anti-integration protests at William Frantz Elementary continued. More Black students had enrolled in the school, and the White students had returned.Henry was asked to leave the school, prompting a move to Boston. As Bridges worked her way through elementary school, her time at William Frantz became less difficult—she no longer elicited such intense scrutiny—and she spent the rest of her education in integrated settings.

Continuing Challenges

Bridges' entire family faced reprisals because of her integration efforts. Her father was fired after White patrons of the gas station where he worked threatened to take their business elsewhere. Abon Bridges would mostly remain jobless for five years. In addition to his struggles, Bridges' paternal grandparents were forced off their farm.

Bridges' parents divorced when she was 12. The Black community stepped in to support the Bridges family, finding a new job for Abon and babysitters for Bridges' four younger siblings.

During this tumultuous time, Bridges found a supportive counselor in child psychologist Robert Coles.He had seen the news coverage about her and admired the first-grader's courage, so he arranged to include her in a study of Black children who had desegregated public schools. Coles became a long-term counselor, mentor, and friend. Her story was included in his 1964 classic "Children of Crises: A Study of Courage and Fear" and his 1986 book "The Moral Life of Children."

Adult Years

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Bridges graduated from an integrated high school and went to work as a travel agent. She married Malcolm Hall, and the couple had four sons. When her youngest brother was killed in a 1993 shooting, Bridges took care of his four girls as well. By that time, the neighborhood around William Frantz Elementary had become populated by mostly Black residents. Due to White flight—the movement of White people from areas growing more ethnically diverse to suburbs often populated by White residents—the once integrated school had become segregated again, attended largely by low-income Black students. Because her nieces attended William Frantz, Bridges returned as a volunteer. She then founded the Ruby Bridges Foundation. The foundation "promotes and encourages the values of tolerance, respect, and appreciation of all differences," according to the group's website. Its mission is to "change society through the education and inspiration of children." Institutionalized racism leads to the economic and social conditions under which foundations such as Bridges' are needed.

In 1995, Coles wrote a biography of Bridges for young readers. Titled "The Story of Ruby Bridges," the book thrust Bridges back into the public eye. That same year, she appeared on the "Oprah Winfrey Show," where she was reunited with her first-grade teacher. Both women reflected on the role they played in each other's lives. Each described the other as a hero. Bridges had modeled courage, while Henry had supported her and taught her how to read, which became the student's lifelong passion. Moreover, Henry had served as an important counterbalance to the mobs of racist White people who tried to intimidate Bridges as she arrived at school each day. Bridges included Henry in her foundation work and in joint speaking appearances.

Bridges wrote about her experiences integrating William Frantz in 1999's "Through My Eyes," which won the Carter G. Woodson Book Award. In 2001, she received a Presidential Citizens Medal, and in 2009, she wrote a memoir called "I Am Ruby Bridges." The following year, the U.S. House of Representatives honored her courage with a resolution celebrating the 50th anniversary of her first-grade integration.

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In 2011, Bridges visited the White House and then-President Obama, where she saw a prominent display of Norman Rockwell’s painting "The Problem We All Live With." President Obama thanked Bridges for her efforts. Bridges, in an interview after the meeting with White House archivists, reflected on examining the painting as she stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the first U.S. Black president:

"The girl in that painting at 6 years old knew absolutely nothing about racism. I was going to school that day. But, the lesson that I took away that year in an empty school building was that...we should never look at a person and judge them by the color of their skin. That's the lesson that I learned in first grade."

Speaking Engagements

Bridges has not sat quietly in the years since her famed walk to integrate the New Orleans school. She currently has her own website and speaks at schools and various events. For example, Bridges spoke at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in early 2020 during Martin Luther King Jr. week. She also spoke at a school district in Houston in 2018, where she told students:

“I refuse to believe there’s more evil out there in the world than good, but we all have to stand up and make a choice. The truth is, you need each other. If this world is going to get better, you’re going to have to change it.”

Bridges' talks are still vital today because over 60 years after Brown, public and private schools in the United States are still de facto segregated. Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit that seeks to broaden the discussion about economic policy to include the interests of low- and middle-income workers, said:

"Schools remain segregated today because neighborhoods in which they are located are segregated. Raising achievement of low-income black children requires residential integration, from which school integration can follow."

Bridges laments the current situation, saying that "schools are reverting” to being segregated along racial lines. As a recent New York Times article noted:

"(M)ore than half of the nation’s schoolchildren are in racially concentrated districts, where over 75 percent of students are either white or nonwhite."

Despite this, Bridges sees hope for a better, more equal and just future, saying that a more integrated society lies with children:

“Kids really don’t care about what their friends look like. Kids come into the world with clean hearts, fresh starts. If we are going to get through our differences, it’s going to come through them.”

Additional References

Biography of Ruby Bridges: Civil Rights Movement Hero (2024)
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