Ruby Bridges Reflects on Her Life at Book Festival

By Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS —  Ruby Bridges remembers how excited she was when an anonymous donor sent Dr. Seuss books to her New Orleans home in 1960, the year she ended segregation in local public education by enrolling at a previously all-white elementary school.

The civil rights icon says the books were a bright spot during the time she entered the William Frantz Elementary School at the age of 6. They were pivotal not only to her passion for reading, but also to her later work to get books to as many schoolchildren as possible.

Bridges will be furthering that mission this weekend at the New Orleans Children’s Book Festival, an event she launched with Cheryl Landrieu, wife of Mayor Mitch Landrieu, in 2010.

The free festival is on Friday and Saturday. Books will be given to children free and there will be readings by Bridges and other authors.

It was on Nov. 14, 1960, that court-ordered integration of public schools began in New Orleans. Escorted by U.S. marshals through an angry crowd, Bridges walked up the steps and into the school. The moment was captured in pictures and in a Norman Rockwell painting that last summer hung for a time in the White House.

Ken Ducote, a teacher and school administrator in New Orleans’ public school system from 1971 to 2003, said Bridges put a name and face on integration.

“Until that moment, black kids and white kids didn’t have relationships with each other. They didn’t know each other by name. There was a real disconnect,” said Ducote, who now serves on the advisory board for the Ruby Bridges Foundation.

Bridges, 58, lives in suburban New Orleans and wrote a book geared to older children about her experience at Frantz called “Through My Eyes.” She travels the country speaking at schools and book fairs and says her experience, though lonely at times, wasn’t as scary as one might think.

“I just thought it was like Mardi Gras,” she said, referring to the policemen and mob outside the school. “I’m sure it was a different story for my parents.”

Bridges said she remembers feeling safe at school and being greeted each morning with a smile and hug from her teacher, Barbara Henry. School, she says, is a place where every child belongs and where children from all backgrounds can connect through books and education.

“My message is really that racism has no place in the hearts and minds of our children,” she said.

Bridges said she empathizes with parents struggling to provide for their children. That’s why some books will be distributed free at the festival. Others will be offered for sale.

For Bridges, the eldest child in a family that would grow to include eight children, receiving the Dr. Seuss books is a special memory.

“I so loved getting those books,” she said. “We didn’t have much growing up. My parents were concerned with things like where the next meal was coming from, so books were a luxury.”

The family lived a few blocks from William Frantz elementary in an upper 9th Ward neighborhood. The area flooded when levees failed during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The school is still under repair and is on the National Register of Historical Places.

Ducote said Bridges’ story is part of an exhibit at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis called “The Power of Children,” which also includes the stories of Holocaust survivor Anne Frank and AIDS sufferer Ryan White.

“They were all children surrounded by something bad who continued to grow and come of age and build themselves up stronger in spite of their circumstances,” Ducote said. “Any child being bullied today, over race or for any other reason, can feel empowered by their stories.”

The New Orleans book festival was launched to mark the 50th anniversary of Bridges’ historic walk into Frantz Elementary. It begins Friday evening with a reading and musical performance by the Greater New Orleans Youth Orchestra. Families are invited to bring picnic baskets to enjoy the event on the grounds of the Latter Library, just off the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line.

Festivities continue Saturday with food, music, readings and activities geared toward children.

Among the authors scheduled to read are Bridges, “Crawfish Tales” author Dee Scallan, “Goodnight NOLA” author Cornell Landry and Jean Cassels, author of “The Cajun Nutcracker.”

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