Ruby Bridges’ first day of school as depicted by Norman Rockwell in his painting “The Problem We All Live With.”
Ruby Bridges became a Pioneer when she was six years old.
In the summer of 1960, Ruby was getting ready to start first grade. Last year, in kindergarten, Ruby went to the same school as all the kids on her street attended, Johnson Lockett Elementary School across town. Johnson Lockett was the city’s school for black children. All the kids from her street went there. Her mama was friends with the teachers. She was comfortable. She fit in. She loved school.
Ruby’s parents had never learned to read or write, but they wanted more for their children. They were a family of faith, and they knew the scriptures well. They had memorized whole passages from the Old Testament and the New Testament, and they taught the principles to their children. They were excited to send Ruby to learn. Someday she could read the Bible to them.
Ruby lived in Louisiana, and Louisiana did things a certain way. Even though the neighborhood school was closer to Ruby’s house, it was only for white kids. Ruby wasn’t welcome there.
Then the news came that Integration was coming to Ruby’s town. All the black kindergarten children were tested to see if they would be able to make the transition to the white schools — which had better books, better resources, and better-trained teachers. Many people didn’t want the black children and white children going to school together, so they made the test very hard.
But Ruby was smart. Ruby passed their test.
Ruby and four other children were selected to begin integration in New Orleans in November 1960. The other children were from a different neighborhood, so they were allowed to attend school together. Ruby would be the only black child enrolled at her neighborhood school, William Frantz Public School.
Federal marshals had to escort Ruby to her classes for the first full month because people threatened to hurt her and her family. Most of the white parents pulled their kids out of the school. Ruby went to first grade all by herself, learning from a white teacher on her own, day after day.
Ruby was a girl of great faith. As she walked past those howling mobs every morning and every afternoon, Ruby kept a prayer in her heart. One day when a doctor asked her why she prayed for them, Ruby told him that they needed praying for. He asked her what she said in her prayers, and she told him. Her prayers went like this:
“Please, God, try to forgive those people. Because even if they say those bad things, they don’t know what they’re doing. So you could forgive them, just like You did those folks a long time ago when they said terrible things about You.”*
Ruby’s teacher, Mrs. Henry, came to love Ruby like a daughter. They spent all day every day together until the end of the school year.
The next year when Ruby went to second grade, she went to William Frantz again, but this time there were no marshals. This time there was a classroom full of children. This time there were other black children in the school.
Ruby paved the way for black children and white children to learn together, play together, and eventually work together in New Orleans. Ruby has written books and started a foundation to help William Frantz Public School — which is now full of black children.
Ruby Bridges was a Pioneer.
*Ruby’s prayer was recorded by Dr. Robert Coles in his book, “The Story of Ruby Bridges.” An interview about her desire to pray for those who persecuted her and the faith of her family can be found here. Please be aware, an offensive term is used to describe Ruby in the clip.