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Ruby Bridges      

Civil Rights Activist & First African-American Child to Integrate a White Southern Elementary School

Ruby Bridges advanced the cause of civil rights in November 1960 when she became the first African American student to integrate an elementary school in the South.

When Bridges was only six years old, her parents answered a call from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, volunteering Bridges as a student to participate in the integration of the public school system in New Orleans. She was the first black child to attend William Frantz Elementary School, as well as the first African American child to go to an all-white elementary school located in the South. When Bridges was assigned to William Frantz Elementary School, her father felt that the backlash would lead to problems for Bridges as well as problems for the family. Her mother felt very strongly that Bridges should be involved in this event, and understood the impact Bridges's involvement would have on African Americans in the future.

Bridges was initially supposed to integrate into William Frantz Elementary on November 14, 1960, and she remembers that there was a huge crowd of people surrounding the school. As she entered the building, people were shouting and throwing things, and she didn't understand that the things directed towards her were because a black child dared to enter "their" school. Once Bridges made it into the school, escorted by federal marshals, she spent the entire day of the first day of school sitting in the office with her mother while parents continued to show up, pull their children out of school, and refuse for their children to be educated alongside a black child. All of the teachers with the exception of one, Mrs. Barbara Henry from Boston, refused to teach Bridges. She became Bridges's teacher, and she was her only pupil for the entire year. At the conclusion of the year, Mrs. Henry was not asked back at William Frantz Elementary, and so she moved back to Boston to raise a family in a place where she felt things were "normal." She never forgot about Bridges and kept a picture of the girl with so much courage on her bureau in her bedroom. Mrs. Henry and Bridges were reunited in adulthood.

Much of what her father anticipated would happen to Bridges and to the family did happen. Her father lost his job, her grandparents, sharecroppers living in Mississippi, were sent off the land, and Bridges and her family received many death threats. This resulted in an outpouring of support by the black community who would help her father get a new job, babysit, watch the house to protect it, and walk behind the marshals' car.

Bridges still lives in New Orleans today. For 15 years, she worked as a travel agent and then later became a full-time mom to her four sons. She is currently the chair of the Ruby Bridges Foundation, which was created in 1999, and was established to teach tolerance, appreciation of differences, and respect. She has stated that she feels that racism is an adult disease that uses children to spread the disease.

In 1993, Bridges began to take care of her orphaned nieces who also attended William Frantz Elementary, and began to volunteer at the school. In 2001, Bill Clinton awarded Bridges with the Presidential Citizens Medal and in 2006 a new elementary school was dedicated to Bridges in Alameda, California. In 2007, the Children's Museum of Indianapolis opened their new exhibit that chronicled the life of Bridges, Ryan White, and Anne Frank.

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