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Lucille and Ruby Bridges: First Black Child to Integrate a White Elementary School

Updated: Feb 18, 2023

When The U.S. Supreme Court struck down school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the impact was initially both overwhelming and negligible. The mandate to desegregate schools and give Black children access to the same education as White students represented a dramatic shift in social dynamics. But racism can’t be legislated into oblivion. Given six years to integrate their schools, southern states largely ignored the decision and continued to operate business as usual. When the six year window came to a close in 1960, southern states had yet to admit a single Black student into a White elementary school.

The first students to break the color barrier were the Little Rock Nine, nine Arkansas high schoolers who collectively entered Little Rock High School in 1957. Met with angry protesters and constant insults and threats, the nine had to be protected by the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army. The Governor of Arkansas used a variety of legal maneuverings to close the city’s four high schools rather than integrate, effectively negating the 1957-58 school year.

When Ruby Bridges started school in New Orleans in 1959, all southern elementary schools remained segregated, so she had no choice but to attend a segregated Kindergarten. But in 1960, under pressure to integrate, the school system developed an entrance exam for prospective students. It was designed to keep Black children from qualifying for admission into White schools while creating the appearance of complying with court orders. Ruby was one of six Black students in the city to pass the exam and the NAACP encouraged her parents to enroll her in the all-White William Frantz School. Her father, Abon, was opposed, correctly fearing violence and retribution. But her mother, Lucille, was insistent that her oldest child be given the educational opportunities she never had for herself. She also wanted to break down the barriers for her younger four children and for all the other Black children who were being denied their rights.

Of the six children who passed the entrance exam, two opted to remain in their segregated school to avoid the expected dangers. Three others became known as the McDonogh Three when they enrolled in the McDonogh 19 Elementary School. This left six-year old Ruby to begin her first grade career at Frantz alone. On the first day of school, despite the protection from U.S. Marshalls, there was such a large crowd of angry White protestors that Ruby and Lucille were forced to spend the entire day holed up in the principal’s office. White parents pulled their children out of school and no teacher would agree to have Ruby as a student.

On the second day, the parent of one White student broke the boycott and walked his daughter into the school. Several days later, other parents also started to return with their children. But none would permit them to be in the same class as Ruby. One teacher, Barbara Henry, agreed to teach Ruby as the sole student in her class. They spent the entire year as a classroom of two. Despite the gradual decline in protests, one mother threatened to poison Ruby’s food and another mother held up a coffin with a Black doll in it. Four U.S. Marshalls continued to be on hand for Ruby’s protection for the entire year. For lunch, she had no choice but to bring her own meals from home because the Marshalls couldn’t guarantee the safety of the school’s food.

To help Ruby process the hostility and isolation, a child psychologist named Robert Coles volunteered to counsel Ruby once a week in her home. Ruby would learn later that friends of Coles donated high quality clothing so that Ruby would always be well dressed and above criticism – something her family couldn’t afford on their own.

Ruby recounts that due to her young age, she didn’t fully grasp the magnitude of what was happening to her. She said that, unsure of how to explain it all to her, her parents didn’t do much to prepare her for her first day. So she thought that with all the yelling and objects being thrown into the air, she had walked through a Mardi Gras parade. But her mother Lucille was fully aware of the dangers facing her daughter. Much is rightfully written about Ruby’s courage, but great respect is also due Lucille, who put the well being of her entire family at risk in order to stay true to a principle. Not only did her daughter face daily death threats and slurs, her husband Abon lost his job as a gas station attendant. Ruby’s sharecropper grandparents were turned off the land where they earned their livelihood. The grocery store where Lucille shopped refused to serve her any longer. Abon and Lucille eventually separated over the stress and differences on whether the principle was worth the cost.

Other Black students joined Ruby at Frantz the following year. Slowly, classrooms begrudgingly integrated. Ruby would grow up to have a career and family, and write three books about her experiences.

The impact of Brown v. Board of Education would not turn out to be the watershed moment the Black community had hoped it would be. As districts were forced to integrate and consolidate, more than 30,000 Black teachers and administrators lost their jobs as White administrators protected the jobs of White teachers. Black students lost role models and teachers who understood them. They instead became minorities within White schools, enduring both major and micro aggressions. A system of school funding based on property taxes continues to ensure that poorer students still attend schools with far less resources. The fight for educational equity remains. But we can look to Ruby Bridges and her mother Lucille for inspiration. They showed us that principles are worth fighting for and that future generations deserve our commitment to see the promises of Brown fulfilled.

To learn more about Ruby Bridges, we recommend Through My Eyes: Ruby Bridges by Ruby Bridges and Margo Lundell, the movie Ruby Bridges and Wikipedia’s profile Ruby Bridges.

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