Bedecked in a bow, and looking ever so petite next to the armed escorts who towered over her, she inspired Norman Rockwell’s painting “The Problem We All Live With,” a celebrated image of the civil rights movement published in Look magazine in 1964.
Ruby did not know what to make of the noisy crowd gathered outside the school building and surmised that perhaps she had happened upon a Mardi Gras celebration, she told the Dallas Morning News years later. The onlookers, many of them parents of White students at the school, jeered at her. “Two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate,” they chanted.
But Ruby’s mother was there to reassure her.
“Don’t pay them no attention,” she told her. “Just pray for them.”
Mrs. Bridges, a mother determined to obtain for her daughter the proper education she herself had been denied, died Nov. 10 at her home in New Orleans. She was 86. Ruby Bridges, who today is an author, speaker and civil rights activist, confirmed the death and said the cause was cancer.
Less than four months earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had handed down the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education that outlawed segregation in public schools. Even after the ruling, many schools across the South stonewalled any movement toward integration until federal courts ordered them to admit Black students.
One such school was William Frantz in New Orleans, where the Bridges family had moved when Ruby was 2 in search of better employment. “Sharecropping is hard work,” Mrs. Bridges once said, according to her daughter’s 1999 book “Through My Eyes.” “I wanted a better life for Ruby.”
They lived in a rooming house, where Ruby’s father, a service station attendant, and her mother, who earned money cleaning hotels and making caskets, began raising their family of eight children. Ruby was attending a segregated school when the local school board began testing Black kindergartners to determine who qualified for enrollment in a White school.
“I’ve been told that it was set up so that kids would have a hard time passing,” Ruby Bridges wrote in her book. “If all the black children had failed, the white school board might have had a way to keep the schools segregated for a while longer.”
Ruby was among several Black students who passed the test, however. Over the summer, representatives of the NAACP visited Ruby’s parents, imploring them to enroll her in first grade at William Frantz.
“Ruby was special,” Mrs. Bridges said, according to her daughter’s book. “I wanted her to have a good education so she could get a good job when she grew up. But Ruby’s father thought his child shouldn’t go where she wasn’t wanted.”
Mrs. Bridges prevailed.
She later conceded that she had not anticipated the struggles that awaited them.
On the first day of school, Ruby was sequestered in the principal’s office as White parents removed their children from the school. Only on her second day did she meet her teacher, Barbara Henry, a White educator from Boston who agreed to take Ruby as a pupil when local teachers would not.
In time, White students returned, but not to Ruby’s room. “It was just the two of us for the entire year,” Ruby Bridges wrote in an essay published in The Washington Post in 2010, recalling the woman she knew as Mrs. Henry. “She never missed a day, and neither did I.”
The Bridgeses lived only a few blocks from the school, but the morning trip there was torturous for Ruby and her mother. One segregationist protester wielded a toy coffin containing a Black doll. Ruby’s father lost his job when he refused to pull his daughter from the school, and the local grocery store began turning away the family’s business.
“I didn’t know how bad things would get,” Mrs. Bridges said. “I remember being afraid on the first day Ruby went to the Frantz school, when I came home and turned on the TV set and I realized that, at that moment, the whole world was watching my baby and talking about her. At that moment, I was most afraid.”
Ruby, for her part, was not afraid.
“Despite all those angry people,” she said years later, according to an account published in The Post, “I felt protected and safe because the federal marshals stood by my mother and I.”
Robert Coles, a psychiatrist who years later received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his efforts to elucidate the effects of poverty and racism on children, wrote extensively about students undergoing desegregation. One of the children he observed was Ruby Bridges.
Amid the fury, “her mother reassured her, taking her to school, telling her daily of her family’s support,” he wrote in the Atlantic Monthly in 1963. “She never denied Ruby’s observation that ‘They don’t like me’ but told her that her family, all of them, loved her.
“Most important, her mother and father are strong and affectionate people, and it is this intimacy between basically sound parents and children which disperses the natural fears in the young. Under such family protection hard words and scowls are ineffective.”
Lucille Commadore was born in Tylertown on Aug. 12, 1934. Her parents, who were sharecroppers, were forced from their land when Ruby integrated her elementary school.
“When I was a child, white and black would pick cotton together,” Mrs. Bridges told the Courier-Journal of Louisville, in 2009. “The bus would come pick up the white kids, but I couldn’t go to school. I would watch them go with tears in my eyes. I prayed if I ever got married, I wanted my kids to go to school.”
Ruby Bridges wrote in The Post that the decision to enroll her in the White school sparked disagreements between her parents that led to their separation. Abon Bridges died in 1978.
Mrs. Bridges was predeceased by two of her children, including a son who was fatally shot. His daughters, whom Ruby Bridges helped care for, attended William Frantz, which was badly damaged in Hurricane Katrina. The building today is the site of a charter school, Akili Academy, where Room 2306 is the Ruby Bridges Room.
Besides her six children, Mrs. Bridges’s survivors include five siblings and a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Ruby Bridges is the author of the newly released book-length letter to young people, “This Is Your Time.” She dedicated “Through My Eyes” in part “to my mama, truly an unsung hero, for having the courage and faith to take a stand — not just for her own children but for all children.”
Barbara Henry, her teacher, is 88 years old and lives in West Roxbury, Mass. Reached by phone, she recalled that Mrs. Bridges came to school with Ruby her first day in the classroom. Mrs. Bridges was there to be a comfort to her daughter, Henry said, but “unknown to her, she was a comfort and a support for me as well.” She said that Mrs. Bridges remembered her with a Christmas card every year.
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