The image of a young Ruby Bridges entering the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans made her an icon of the burgeoning civil rights movement. What many don’t know is that later in life, Bridges became an activist after an unfortunate twist of fate led her back to the school that transformed her life.
Bridges was born September 8, 1954 in Tylertown, Miss. Her parents moved to New Orleans when she was four, hoping to provide a better life.
In the spring of 1960, after the landmark Brown V. Board of Education decision, Bridges and several other Black students passed a test to enter William Frantz. Despite the legal decision to overturn segregation, execution of the law lagged behind.
That fall, Bridges had to be flanked by four federal marshals and could not eat the school’s lunches because of threats that she would be poisoned. Angry white mobs gathered daily and threats against the little girl and her family were commonplace. While Bridges remembered feeling terrified, an interview of one of the marshals who guarded her commended Bridges on her bravery.
Barbara Henry, a teacher from Boston, volunteered to teach Bridges after white parents at the school pulled their children out of classes. Henry and Bridges established a deep bond.
The following year, crowds died down as both Black and white families stood up to the racist mobs and surrounded Bridges with protection. Bridges was also assisted a child psychiatrist, Harvard University professor Robert Coles. Coles worked weekly with Bridges in those days, and wrote a book about her experience to help others cope with similar problems.
As an adult, Bridges worked as a travel agent, married Malcolm Hall and became a full-time homemaker raising their four sons. But her life took a turn in 1993 after the death of her brother when she became the caretaker of his children who all attended Frantz. Bridges began volunteering at the school as a parent liaison.
She learned that Coles wrote a book about their chats and was reunited with Mrs. Henry, the teacher who taught and helped guide Bridges in those early days, during an emotional episode on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1996.
In 1999, Bridges founded The Ruby Bridge Foundation which works to eliminate racism and educate youth. Bridges has been honored many times over, including getting the Presidential Citizen’s Medal from President Bill Clinton in 2001. In 2011, Bridges visited the White House and viewed the famed 1966 painting of her on the schoolhouse steps by artist Norman Rockwell alongside President Barack Obama.
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