Ruby Bridges

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Some of life's greatest learnings come from the most unexpected teachers.

It took a six-year-old, for example, to prove to Americans that segregation was evil.

In 1960, Ruby Bridges was ready to start school. Her parents wanted her to have the best possible education, so they enrolled her in the state-of-the-art William Frantz Elementary, one of the best schools in the US southern state of Louisiana. There was one problem, however. Ruby Bridges was black.

In the South, as part of the “Jim Crow” system that kept the races separate, black children had been forbidden from attending school with white children. Instead, black kids were crowded into over-populated, second-rate institutions that received less funding than their white counterparts. But in 1954, that changed, at least as far as the law was concerned. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled in a watershed case called Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in publicly funded schools was henceforth illegal. 

With Brown v. Board of Ed, black students were now allowed, by law, to enter into the all-white education system. But many white Southerners vowed to defy the Supreme Court ruling any way they could. In Ruby's home town of New Orleans, for example, an all-white school board created a brutally difficult “entrance exam” just for black applicants. Despite the odds, Ruby and five other black kids passed the test in 1960.

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Ruby’s father, who was afraid of the harassment and danger she would face from whites, almost didn’t let her attend the all-white William Frantz Elementary. But Ruby’s mother put her foot down: Ruby would go to the best school and get the same education that white children took for granted.

On her first day of school on November 14, 1960, however, Ruby took the first step to break the Jim Crow system all on her own. Out of the initial six black students to pass the entrance exam, two stayed in their all-black schools; the other three were assigned to a different elementary.

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Ruby would run the gauntlet of hatred and intimidation without the support of age-mates or friends.

Fearing for her safety, federal marshals were dispatched to escort the little girl -- who carried a book bag and wore crisp white ankle socks and a bow in her neatly plaited hair -- past a mob of angry white adults. They screamed racial slurs directly into the face of a person half their size. They threw fruit at her, sullying her perfectly pressed dress. One woman even carried a black baby doll in a coffin. But Ruby didn't flinch. 

The walk as depicted by the beloved American artist, Norman Rockwell, would make her an icon of the movement to end racial segregation in the United States.

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Once inside William Frantz Elementary, Ruby was made to sit by herself in the school principal’s office while white parents stormed into classrooms to remove their children. Only one teacher at the school, a young woman originally from Boston named Barbara Henry, was willing to instruct Ruby. Henry taught Ruby every subject, including gym and music, in a classroom empty of other students. Ruby ate lunch alone and played with her teacher at recess. Despite the isolation and angry faces surrounding her, Ruby’s deep connection with Barbara Henry meant that she never missed a day of school.

While Ruby worked hard to learn despite the pressure, her parents were punished for supporting their daughter’s education. Her father was fired from his job at a gas station, and her grandparents were evicted from the land they'd worked for decades as sharecroppers. The Bridges were even banned from the local grocery story. But the family held fast and, recognizing their bravery, a few white neighbors began to lend their support. They sent money to the Bridges and walked with Ruby to school.

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By Ruby’s second school year, the angry crowds vanished. White parents were returning their children to William Frantz Elementary, although they refused to play with the first black child in the history of the US to attend an all-white school.

Ruby would graduate from a desegregated high school 18 years later. She went on to forge a career as a travel agent. When her brother died in a drug-related shooting in 1993, she became a public speaker on Civil Rights. She created the Ruby Bridges Foundation, organizing after-school programs at William Frantz Elementary to promote cultural understanding through community service.

Ruby's courage, and that of her parents, was extraordinary for any human, much less a child. That's why she's a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero.
 

"Ruby Bridges is my #HistoryHero. I'm certain in her shoes, I would not have been so brave. I've often wondered what was it like to be bombarded, day after day, with hate when all you wanted was to learn. How could she not have been crush by fear? How did she refrain herself from not fighting back?"

SARAH TOWLE

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