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In this episode, we meet Ruby Bridges, who, as a very young child desegregated a public elementary school in New Orleans, Louisiana. That means she was the first Black student ever to go to that school. Ruby’s bravery in the face of immense bigotry helped further the cause of equal access to education! Her story is brought to us by Marley Dias, the amazing founder of #1000BlackGirlBooks and author of Marley Dias Gets It Done: And So Can You!
Marley Dias is the 15-year-old founder of #1000BlackGirlBooks and author of Marley Dias Gets It Done: And So Can You! #1000BlackGirlBooks is an international movement to collect and donate children’s books that feature Black girls as the lead character. Marley launched the #1000BlackGirlBooks drive in November of 2015 with the help of GrassROOTS Community Foundation, leveraging the power of social media to reach a larger audience. Marley has collected over 12,000 books to-date. She was recognized by TIME, as one of the 25 most influential teens in 2018 and was identified as the youngest member of the Forbes 30 under 30 list to date.
Marley Dias Once upon a time there was a brave little girl whose love for learning was stronger than her fears, and made her one of the youngest trailblazers in the Civil Rights Movement.
Her name is Ruby.
On November 14th, 1960, Ruby was excited to start a new school. She wasn’t sure why she was moving schools in the middle of the school year, but Ruby didn’t mind. So long as she was able to continue learning new things.
On the morning of her first day, Ruby’s mother helped her into a pretty new dress while her younger siblings played at the table. As Ruby placed her feet into her patent leather shoes, little did she know that in just a few moments, she’d be walking into the history books.
Then there was a knock at the door. Ruby’s mother went to answer it. There were tall, white men in suits outside. U.S Marshals sent to escort Ruby and her mother to her new school. They wore important looking suits. Their job was to protect Ruby on her way to school. Protect her from what, though? Ruby didn’t understand why she’d need protection at school.
But soon she’d find out.
Dias I’m Marley Dias. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
On this episode…Ruby Bridges.
Dias In 1960, when Ruby began Kindergarten the schools in her area were segregated, that means the white children went to one school and the Black children went to another.
She attended a school for Black children that was miles away from her home. The schools near her were for white children only. Ruby’s mother knew that her daughter wasn’t getting the education she deserved. The books were outdated, classrooms were overcrowded, and the facilities were in poor condition.
But that year though a judge demanded that two public schools in New Orleans integrate their classrooms. White legislators tried to stop it. They even made an exam that only Black children had to take in order to be admitted into the white schools. It’s said they made it difficult on purpose difficult, so that it would be impossible to pass.
Ruby sat for the test with her pencils sharp and eyes bright. And once the results were in, six students passed, and Ruby was one of them. She was assigned to a school just a few blocks from her home called William Frantz Elementary School. She’d be the first – and for a while ONLY – Black student there.
On the morning of her first day of first grade, Ruby didn’t really know what was at stake. She had heard her parents arguing about her new school but she didn’t realize that soon she’d make history and change the future of education.
All she knew was that she got to wear a pretty new dress and her patent leather shoes, and finally meet her new teacher and classmates.
Ruby drove to school that day, in the back seat of a big car driven by the federal marshals who would protect her.
They gave her specific directions: “Let us get out of the car first. Then you’ll get out, and the four of us will surround you,” said one of the federal marshals. “Just walk straight away and don’t look back.”
At first, Ruby wasn’t sure why she was given these instructions, but she listened carefully. And it was soon VERY clear. As they pulled up to her new school, Ruby held onto her mother’s hand. It was scary going some place new… especially when a large, loud crowd was surrounding your new school.
One of the federal marshals opened the car door for Ruby and her mother, and Ruby did as she was told– she looked forward, and not into the crowd as she walked with her mother, sandwiched between the federal marshals.
All around her adults were shouting. Ruby held her mother’s hand tight as she approached her big, new school with all the steps. She was excited to finally arrive, but also scared. What was her teacher like? Who was going to be her new best friend? And will these people be out here, carryin’ on like this all day?
Ruby was used to big, loud crowds. She was a New Orleans girl now, accustomed to Mardi Gras and big parades…but they didn’t have these kinds of crowds at the Black schools…. Is this how white people did it at their big, fancy schools?
Because Ruby was trying to ignore the crowd, she didn’t see the anger in the eyes of the people who were shouting “go back home!” and holding signs that read “WHITES ONLY!”
As Ruby and her mother walked into the school, she noticed other mothers holding the hands of children her age, rushing them down the very steps she just walked up. Soon, there wasn’t much activity going on in her big new school, and she didn’t know why.
Her first day of school was spent in the principal’s office, waiting…. Waiting to meet her new teacher, waiting to see her new classroom, waiting to make new friends.
But on that first day, that’s all that would happen… There wasn’t a teacher who was willing to teach Ruby, so she had nothing to do but wait.
The next day of school was similar to the first– Ruby was chauffeured to school by four federal marshals, and as she pulled up, she was met with a large crowd of angry white people.
This time, Ruby understood they weren’t there for Mardi Gras. They were there to make her feel unwelcome… to make her feel scared. As the crowd shouted terrible things, Ruby stayed in between the four federal marshals and looked straight ahead.
Fortunately, there was good news inside. A teacher from Boston had just transferred to William Frantz School and would be Ruby’s teacher. Her name was Mrs. Barbara Henry, and she and Ruby would have an instant connection.
Day after day, Ruby continued to go to school, sandwiched between four federal marshals. The mobs of angry people with their “WE WANT SEGREGATION” signs continued to shout mean things to her. Ruby tried to ignore the crowd, but she couldn’t help but notice that one of the women was holding a small coffin with a little black doll in it. And another…she was threatening to poison Ruby’s food! That lady would show up day after day. This scared her, A LOT.
Once she was in her classroom, Ruby felt safe and eager to learn. Mrs. Henry always greeted Ruby warmly, and made her feel welcome. She was kind, and could see how smart Ruby was. But there was one problem.
Ruby was the only person in her classroom.
Most of the other students had been taken out of school by their parents, and the few who were left behind were separated from Ruby.
Being isolated made Ruby feel like she’d done something wrong. She couldn’t even go to the restroom without being escorted by one of the federal marshals. When lunch came around, she’d eat by herself, but she was even afraid to eat since the lady outside had threatened to poison her!
But she kept on going.
Ruby enjoyed learning with Mrs. Henry, but her parents could see that all of the pressure was having an impact. Ruby’s parents often argued about whether or not it was worth it to put their daughter through so much turmoil. Ruby’s father didn’t want his daughter to be somewhere she wasn’t wanted. And while Ruby’s mother was also angered by the viciousness of the mobs, she believed it was worth the fight if it meant that Ruby would have a better education.
As Ruby continued to bravely face the mob at school each day, people in the community also tried to intimidate her family in other ways. Ruby’s father was fired from his job, her grandparents lost their home, and the local grocery store refused to sell food to the Bridges family.
The stress that Ruby was carrying was extremely heavy for a first grader. It caused her to have nightmares and she still was nervous to eat food. What if that lady from the mob has poisoned it? she thought.
Eventually, Ruby started to see a child psychologist named Dr. Robert Coles. He’d talk to Ruby about her experiences and help her through those difficult months. He saw how hard it was for her to be under all of this pressure. He admired how much she still enjoyed school, and was impressed that she wasn’t angry with the people spewing so much hate towards her.
One day, as Ruby swiftly walked through the mob with the four federal marshals, she suddenly stopped and turned around to face the crowd. The federal marshals tried to direct her back to school, but she continued to look up at the faces of the adults who had been screaming at her for all these months.
Later, when Mrs. Henry asked her what she was saying to the mob, Ruby told her she wasn’t saying anything to them …. “I was praying for them,” Ruby told Mrs. Henry.
She shared with her teacher that everyday, as she pulled up to school, she prayed that God would forgive the white people for their anger. She’d forgotten to say her usual prayer in the car that day, so she made sure to do it before she entered the school.
As time passed, some white students eventually returned to school. Their parents were tired of the shenanigans they’d gotten into at home. While this angered the mob, it also encouraged other parents to send their students back too.
Like Ruby’s mother, these parents didn’t want their children robbed of a good education, just because some people were so hateful.
By the time Ruby entered second grade, the angry crowd had grown tired of showing up every day to harass a little girl, and Ruby was integrated into classrooms with the white students. Eventually, more Black children would attend William Frantz, including four of Ruby’s own nieces!
After graduating from a desegregated high school, Ruby became a travel agent. She eventually married and raised four sons. And, in 1996, Ruby reunited with Mrs. Henry and the two of them did a few speaking engagements together.
The fact is…these injustices didn’t happen that long ago! Ruby is still fighting for equality and working hard to make sure every child has equal access to education. And…spreading her message as far and wide and she can. She even wrote a children’s book in 2020 called “This Is Your Time.”
In 2011, Ruby was invited to the White House by President Obama. He’d asked to borrow the famous painting of Ruby Bridges that was done by the artist, Norman Rockwell. It’s called “The Problem We All Live With.”
While standing in the Oval Office, and admiring the painting of tiny Ruby Bridges between the four federal marshals, President Obama told Ruby, “I think it’s fair to say that if it wasn’t for you guys, I wouldn’t be here today.”
And that is her legacy. A child who walked into the history books. Who, through that simple, but incredibly difficult act of just…going to school…helped crack a barrier that we’re still struggling with even today.