By Kari Dequine
ABOVE PHOTO: Pioneering civil rights activist Ruby Bridges visits with Sugar Creek Elementary School third-graders Tuesday in 1997, at the school’s temporary location in Kansas City, Mo. Bridges told the children of her experience as a six-year-old girl in 1960 when she became one of the first black children to go to a white school in New Orleans. She also showed them an illustrated children’s book about it.
(AP Photo/The Kansas City Star, Fred Blocher)
NEW ORLEANS–More than 200 people packed themselves into every seat and inch of floor or wall space of the Carriage House behind the Algiers Courthouse to see Ruby Bridges, one of the first black students to attend New Orleans public schools.
“I was 6 and didn’t have a clue about what was going on,” Bridges told the audience at the temporary location for a New Orleans Public Library branch.
It was 1960, and though she now knows that she “carried the weight of a nation” on her tiny shoulders, at the time she didn’t understand all the commotion.
The only thing her parents told her, recalled Bridges, was “You are going to a new school today, and you’d better behave.”
The new school was William Frantz Elementary in the 9th Ward. At the same time, three other black girls were walking up the steps of McDonogh 19. Aside from her mother and a band of federal marshals, Bridges was alone.
As she walked into the school on that first day, Bridges said, she saw barricades, a mob of people shouting and throwing things, and police officers.
But it all seemed familiar, not scary: “I remember thinking, ‘Today is Mardi Gras. I’m in a parade.’ It was everything that happens during Mardi Gras, so I wasn’t afraid.”
Bridges spent the entire first day sitting with her mother in the principal’s office, watching through a window as angry-looking grown-ups passed, pointing at her and shouting. Then they passed the window again, this time with their children.
Bridges said she recalled neighbors talking about a test she had taken and how smart she was, and thought, “Maybe I’m in college.”
By the second day, the crowd outside the school had doubled. The classrooms were empty. Every child had been pulled out. “I didn’t know it was because of me,” she said.
It was on that day that Bridges met Barbara Henry. Upon meeting the woman from Boston who would spend every day of that school year teaching Ruby, one on one, her first thought was: “‘She is white.’ I didn’t know what to expect. She looked just like all of the people outside.”
That relationship not only inspired Bridges to love school, but taught her a lesson she has tried to teach children ever since: “You never judge a person by the color of their skin.
“I don’t waste my time trying to convince adults not to be racist,” Bridges said. “But I do want kids to have a choice.”
She believes the best way to bring about change is through young people who haven’t yet learned to hate _ people like herself at 6 years old.
“Our children have nothing to do with racism,” Bridges said. “Racism has no place in the hearts of our kids. It’s us, we pass racism on to our kids.”
Bridges said schoolbook history leaves too many stories untold: stories of black and white people fighting side-by-side for civil rights, and stories in which white people died.
Bridges, who lost her house in eastern New Orleans to Hurricane Katrina, has since moved to the West Bank. But she spends the majority of her time flying around the country, speaking to children about not only her experience, but also asking questions about their lives. “So many kids are dealing with the same thing. They are still dealing with racism and that’s a shame.”
To the joy of the crowd, Bridges that she is applying to run William Frantz Elementary School as her a charter school to specialize in teaching history, community service and social justice. Bridges believes that by teaching all history, and acknowledging all who made contributions, she can show children that they have more in common with those who look different than they realize. She also wants to incorporate a civil rights museum in the school.
Social justice, she explained to the numerous young people in the audience, means “You have to share your toys.
“We have got to start taking care of each other,” Bridges stressed. Too many young people are being lost to violence, she said. The audience was stunned by Bridges’ personal disclosure that in 2000, she lost her eldest son to gun violence.
“It’s time to get rid of whatever element out there that is harming kids,” she said. “You are not my brother if you stand over him and shoot him 11 times.”
Evil, she emphasized throughout the evening, “comes in all shades and colors.” As does good.
After a standing ovation, the emotional and enthralled room was opened to questions. The first, from a young girl, was: “How did it feel to be the only black student at school?”
“It was lonely,” Bridges replied.
“How did you feel when you heard the screaming and yelling?” a young boy asked. “I didn’t know they were screaming at me” because the chant rhymed, Bridges told him. At home, she said, she and her sister jumped rope to the chant she heard over and over: “Two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate.”
From the adults, Bridges was given a short song, told about one woman’s personal experience in dealing with racism, and was asked about her assessment of the current level of racism in the city. She referred to a recent conversation with civil rights leader and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who told her “I’ve never seen this country so mean-spirited as it is today.”
When a young boy stood to tell everyone how strong his mother was, bringing the audience to tears, Bridges said, “These are the kinds of hearts we have to protect. “We need hearts like that.”
As the question period closed, everyone, young, old, and of all shades of skin pigmentation, clamored to meet Bridges, pose for photographs, and buy her book, “Through my Eyes.” Outside, honest and open conversations continued about race, an often daunting and avoided topic, and one Bridges reminded people can be “a very touchy subject.”
Two nights prior, Algiers resident Elaine Henderson had read a children’s book written about Bridges to her granddaughter. Five-year-old Alfreyon Smith insisted that they come to see Bridges in person.
“I like her because she was brave,” Alfreyon said.
Henderson’s other granddaughter, Unique Sullen, 11, was also inspired by Bridges.
“I think she made a point that racism is not right,” Unique said, “And that we all should be treated equal.”