Although the USA had a black president in Barack Obama for eight years, the situation of African Americans has still not improved. Formally, they do have the same rights, but they are not certain of the same perception in society. This is shown by the police violence alone, which mainly affects blacks, as the case of George Floyd illustrates in an appalling way. But when you look back just a few decades, you realise how much has already been achieved. An impressive example is the story of the little Ruby Bridges. She was the first black child to be allowed to go to a school in the south of the USA, which until then had been purely white.
What is Ruby Bridges famous for?
Ruby Bridges was the first black child to attend a school in the Southern States of the US that was for white children in the first place. In 1960 she started school at the William Frantz Elementary School. She even had to be accompanied by US Marshals on her way to school to get there safely. But how did that happen?
Childhood in the southern states
Ruby Bridges first saw the light of day on 8 September 1954. Initially she grew up with her three younger siblings in Tylertown, Mississippi. At that time, African Americans in the southern United States were having a difficult time – especially when it came to feeding a family of six. Since the small town of Tylertown offered hardly any opportunities, the family moved to New Orleans in Louisiana when Ruby was four years old. There, her father Abon found a job as a gas station attendant, while her mother Lucille took on various night jobs to support the family.
At that time, racial segregation still prevailed in the south of the USA, which was ratified by the Jim Crow laws as early as 1876 – a few years after the end of slavery. This established the principle that public institutions had to be separate but equal. However, since this was hardly ever checked, the standards of institutions for African Americans were always lower than those intended for white people.
In the 1950s, the civil rights movement therefore received increasing support and media attention. An incident became world famous, which is today called the birth of this movement. The African-American seamstress Rosa Parks refused to vacate her seat in a public bus for a white person. Although she was initially arrested and fined for civil disobedience, it encouraged many more people to follow her example.
Racial segregation in schools
A further milestone was the case Brown v. Board of Education. Esther Brown, a white woman from Kansas City in Missouri, noticed the miserable conditions at the school for black people in the nearby town of South Park as she drove her African-American domestic help home. At the same time, however, the city was planning to build another school just for whites: the William Frantz Elementary School.
The misery resulted in a three-week boycott of the school and then a lawsuit by a branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The organization, together with Brown, wanted to ensure that black children could also have access to the new school. In fact, they were proved right in court, and segregation was lifted for this school.
Encouraged by the decision, more parents complained about the segregation that still existed in schools. In the final instance, the Supreme Court upheld the plaintiffs, and as a result, segregation in schools was lifted in 1954.
Resistance among the white population
Although the verdict was passed, many schools refused to implement it. Thus, racial segregation continued de facto for the time being. Even the kindergarten Ruby Bridges attended in New Orleans was only for blacks. But the highest federal court ordered that this unequal treatment should then also end in Louisiana.
The court reluctantly bowed to the ruling, but required African-American children to take an aptitude test before entering a white school. It was probably hoped that the prejudices would prove to be true and that the separation due to lack of aptitude would continue. But of course they were mistaken.
Why did Ruby Bridges went to a school for white people?
Little Ruby Bidges was chosen along with other children to take part in an aptitude test. She did not know this at the time, but the test was to determine which black students were allowed to attend a white school. She was a smart girl and passed it with flying colors, so her parents were told that she could attend the local white school from now on.
At first, her father was against it, because he was afraid that it could be dangerous. There were many white people who were angry and did not want Ruby at their school. However, her mother thought it would be a good opportunity for her daughter. Ruby would get a better education because the school was in a much better condition than those for African Americans. She could also help pave the way for future children. Finally, her mother convinced her father, and so Ruby Bridges became the first black child to attend a school in the southern USA in 1960, together with white people.
How did Ruby Bridges make a difference?
Although no one could deny Ruby the right to attend a mixed race school, people were reluctant to do so. The first day at this seemingly privileged place must have been terrible for the little girl. As she walked towards the school she could already see the angry crowd throwing objects and chanting racist slogans. But Ruby stood firm, did not cry and marched like a little soldier to school, as one of the accompanying US Marshals later recalled.
The white parents did not want to put up with this alleged insolence and took their children out of school. Teachers also felt insulted and refused to teach Ruby. For a whole year Ruby therefore remained the only child in her class. But at least one teacher, Barbara Henry, took pity on her and taught the little girl against all odds.
Death threats, job loss, and eminent domain
But it was not only the school day that was nerve-racking. Already on the way there one threatened to poison Ruby. One woman even held a black baby doll in a coffin in her hands and showed it to the little girl. The escort ordered by President Eisenhower therefore insisted that Ruby was only allowed to eat food she had brought with her.
The lives of Ruby’s family were also affected by their courageous decision. Ruby’s father lost his job at the gas station and her grandparents were deprived of the lease on their farmland. Even at the local grocery store, the family was no longer wanted.
But there was also support from the population. Both black and white families accompanied Ruby on her way to school, guarded the family’s home, and a neighbor even gave the father a new job.
Over time, some parents began to bring their children back to school and life returned to normal in New Orleans. Today Ruby Bridges still lives in the port city on the Mississippi Delta. She worked as a travel agent for several years, raised four sons and founded the Ruby Bridges Foundation, which is dedicated to promoting tolerance, respect and mutual appreciation.
What can we learn from Ruby Bridges?
Ruby Bridges is a shining example of the need to fight injustice, even if it sometimes takes a lot of courage. She showed this courage when she was a little schoolgirl and set an example for all other black children in the southern states of the USA.
Because of the courage she showed at a young age, her life even became part of the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, which portrays the lives of children who were able to bring change through their behavior. Anne Frank and Ryan White are also part of this permanent exhibition.
What does Ruby Bridges do for a living?
Ruby Bridges Hall, as she is now called, still lives in New Orleans. With her husband Malcolm Hall, she has four sons and is chairman of her own foundation. The Ruby Bridges Foundation has set itself the goal of spreading values such as tolerance, respect and appreciation back into society. In doing so, it tries to make people realize that racism is an adult disease that should not be passed on to their own children. So she can be called an activist for human rights.