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Ruby Bridges was the first African-American child to attend an all-white public elementary school in the American South.
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Ruby Bridges visited President Barack Obama to see Norman Rockwell's painting hanging outside of the Oval Office. The painting depicts her walk to school on the day of school integration in New Orleans. Video courtesy of the White House.
After Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man, the African American community rallied behind her and refused to ride the segregated buses even if it meant walking to work.
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The image of this small black girl being escorted to school by four large white men inspired Norman Rockwell to create the painting "The Problem We All Must Live With" which graced the cover of Look magazine in 1964.
When Ruby and the federal marshals arrived at the school, large crowds of people were gathered in front yelling and throwing objects. There were barricades set up, and policemen were everywhere. Ruby, in her innocence,
first believed it was like a Mardi Gras celebration. When she entered the school under the protection of the federal marshals, she was immediately escorted to the principal's office and spent the entire day there. The chaos outside, and the fact that nearly all the white parents at the school had kept their children home, meant classes weren't going to be held.
On her second day, the circumstances were much the same as the first, and for a while it looked like Ruby Bridges wouldn't be able to attend class. Only one teacher, Barbara Henry, agreed to teach Ruby. She was from Boston and a new teacher to the school. "Mrs. Henry," as Ruby would call her even as an adult, greeted her with open arms. Ruby was the only student in Henry's class, because parents pulled or threatened to pull their children from Ruby's class and send them to other schools. For a full year, Henry and Ruby sat side-by-side at two desks working on Ruby's lessons. She was very loving and supportive of Ruby, helping her not only with her studies, but also the difficult experience of being ostracized.
Ruby Bridges's first few weeks at Frantz School were not easy ones. Several times she was confronted with blatant racism in full view of her federal escorts. On her second day of school, a woman threatened to poison her. After this, the federal marshals allowed her to only eat food from home. On another day, she was "greeted" by a woman displaying a black doll in a wooden coffin. Ruby's mother kept encouraging her to be strong and pray while entering the school, which Ruby discovered reduced the vehemence of the insults yelled at her and gave her courage. She spent her entire day, every day, in Mrs. Henry's classroom, not allowed to go to the cafeteria or out to recess to be with other students in the school. When she had to go to the restroom, the federal marshals walked her down the hall. Several years later, federal marshal Charles Burks, one of her escorts, commented with some pride that Ruby showed a lot of courage. She never cried or whimpered. "She just marched along like a little soldier."
The abuse wasn't limited to only Ruby Bridges; her family suffered as well. Her father lost his job at the filling station, and her grandparents were sent off the land they had sharecropped for over 25 years. The grocery store where the family shopped banned them from entering. However, many others in the community, both black and white, began to show support in a variety of ways. Gradually, many families began to send their children back to the school and the protests and civil disturbances seemed to subside as the year went on.
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