Ruby Nell Bridges was born in Tylertown, Mississippi in 1954, the same year as the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. Her grandparents were sharecroppers, but like many people in rural areas, Ruby’s family moved to New Orleans in search of better opportunities. Her father worked as a service station attendant and her mother took night jobs to help support the family. They lived in the front part of a large rooming house on France Street in the Florida neighborhood. Like the rest of the Upper Ninth Ward, the Florida area was predominantly working class. While both whites and blacks lived in the neighborhood, residents were segregated by block. Of course the schools were segregated as well; though Ruby lived only five blocks from William Frantz Elementary, she had to walk much further to attend Johnson Lockett, the school reserved for African American students.
By the time Ruby entered kindergarten, five years had passed since the Brown decision, but most Southern states had done nothing to comply with the mandate to integrate schools. On the contrary, most state and local governments actively engaged in a campaign of massive resistance to avoid implementing Brown. In other Southern states, governors had closed down schools rather than integrate them. A poll released in 1960 found that a slight majority of parents in Orleans Parish favored keeping publics schools open in the event of integration. African American students made up 60% of the public school population, and their parents overwhelmingly supported integration. White parents, on the other hand, strongly opposed desegregation; 12,229 white parents surveyed voted for closure, while only 2,707 voted for desegregation. The Orleans Parish School Board announced that it would only consider the opinions of the white parents.
Under order from the US District Court, however, the school board was ultimately forced to comply with token integration.
The Louisiana legislature showed its resistance to the court order by holding several special sessions and passing a whole string of repressive laws: blocking tax money for integrated schools, blocking paychecks for teachers at integrated schools, abolishing school boards or closing schools under desegregation orders, etc. The only member of the state legislature who voted against every single one of those racist laws was Maurice “Moon” Landrieu. The federal courts ruled all of the laws unconstitutional.
“The only member of the state legislature who voted against every single one of those racist laws was Maurice “Moon” Landrieu. The federal courts ruled all of the laws unconstitutional.”
While 137 first grade students applied to the Orleans Parish School Board to transfer to an integrated school, only a handful of girls were selected after a battery of testing and background investigations. The pupil placement law the board used was intentionally designed to weed out most applicants in an attempt to limit the extent of desegregation. Ruby’s father was concerned about the potential repercussions of challenging the status quo, but her mother eventually convinced him that the risks were worth the benefits for their own daughter and for all children.
On November 14, 1960, three students went to McDonogh No. 19, and one student, Ruby Bridges, went alone to William Frantz Elementary. Until the designated morning, the location of the school sites had not been released. Both schools were located in the Ninth Ward, an area with little political influence. Under the escort of federal marshals, Ruby rode to William Frantz Elementary and entered the school building under their protection. All day long, angry white parents removed their children from the school as Ruby and her mother waited in the front office. At the end of the first school day, the crowd outside of William Frantz was larger and louder than it had been that morning as news of Ruby’s attendance spread.
The next day, the White Citizens’ Council held a meeting in the Municipal Auditorium attended by over 5,000 people. The leaders of the meeting called for protests and boycotts to resist integration. On November 16th, crowds marched to the school board building shouting, “Two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate.” The mayor, DeLesseps Morrison, went on television that night to urge an end to the violence, but he also announced that the New Orleans Police Department was not enforcing the federal court order for school integration. Riots broke out after the announcement, and several people were injured. The police arrested 250 people, but almost none of the white rioters were arrested.
Every morning a group of forty or more women, known as the “cheerleaders”, shouted obscene, racist threats at Ruby as she entered Frantz Elementary. Ruby received instruction in isolation from her teacher, Mrs. Barbara Henry. Even to use the restroom, she had to be escorted by the marshals, and Ruby ate lunch alone in the classroom every day.
The national media covered the school crisis extensively, and over time business leaders began to worry about the economic impact on the city. Eventually many of the elites of New Orleans signed a declaration in support of preserving public education and obeying the federal courts. The declaration was printed in the newspaper one week before the opening of school in September 1961. A new mayor, Victor Schiro, had also been appointed by the city council after Mayor Morrison took a position as a US ambassador. Mayor Schiro pledged to preserve order, and he assigned sixty police officers to each school undergoing integration.
The plan was successful and integration occurred without any major incidents. When Ruby returned to Frantz after summer vacation, the protesters were no longer waiting outside to harass her. Her second grade class contained over twenty other students, and she was no longer the only African American child enrolled in the school. That being said, the token integration consisted of only twelve African Americans in six schools. The pupil placement law ensured that only a handful of African American students would make it through the screening procedure used for transfers. Eventually the Orleans Parish School Board was forced to abolish the pupil placement law and expand integration to the upper grades, but they did so slowly and reluctantly. By 1964, ten years after Brown, only 809 African Americans had entered formerly white schools.
Ruby went on to finish grammar school at Frantz and to attend an integrated high school. After her parents divorced, Ruby’s mother was forced to move the family out of the house on France Street and into the nearby Florida housing project. After graduating from high school, Ruby wanted to attend college, but she did not have anyone to guide her through the process. She later became a travel agent, married, and raised four sons.
In the early 1990s, Ruby’s youngest brother, Milton, was killed in a drug-related shooting. Though the incident was traumatic, it awakened in Ruby a social consciousness about the issues facing children and adults in urban areas. In particular, she began to put her past experiences into perspective. The fight for school integration was hard fought, and it represented an extremely significant milestone in the Civil Rights Movement. Sadly here in New Orleans, as in other cities across the nation, the victory was short-lived. By the time Ruby began to volunteer at her alma mater, William Frantz, it had long since become segregated again. The neighborhood around the school had also deteriorated with increasing poverty and crime rates.
Inspired by her desire to help children achieve their hopes and dreams, the Ruby Bridges Foundation was established. The foundation began taking small steps to achieve a grand vision- to provide children with an equal opportunity to succeed. Appropriately the work began at Frantz, where the foundation started an after-school program featuring multicultural arts classes. Later, a program called Ruby’s Bridges was developed to promote cultural understanding through community service.