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Ruby was the first Black child to desegregate her school. This is what she learned

U.S. deputy marshals escort six-year-old Ruby Bridges from William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans in November 1960.
U.S. deputy marshals escort six-year-old Ruby Bridges from William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans in November 1960.

The morning of November 14, 1960, a little girl named Ruby Bridges got dressed and left for school.

At just six years old, Ruby became the first Black child to desegregate the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans.

Federal marshals had to escort Ruby, as she was faced with throngs of angry white protestors restrained by barricades.

Today, she is a civil rights activist and author, with her most recent children's release, I Am Ruby Bridges: How one six-year-old girl's march to school changed the world, telling the story of that day, with illustrations by Nikkolas Smith.

She joined All Things Considered to share more about her experience, and what today's children can learn from what she endured.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Interview Highlights

On what she knew that day in 1960

Well, not much. I had already attended an all-Black school for kindergarten and thought I knew enough about school to sort of understand that I was merely going to a new school.

I had no idea that it was going to be a white school. It wasn't something that my parents explained to me. As a matter of fact, the only thing they said is, "Ruby, you're going to go to the school today and you better behave." I have to say that that's what I was concentrating on, right? Not behaving, being on my best behavior.

I did not have a clue [about why people were yelling]. But I have to say, living in New Orleans all my life and even then, I was accustomed to Mardi Gras. And that's exactly what it looked like to me. White people, Black people all lined up together, shouting and waving their hands and throwing things. And so I actually thought we would see a parade.

On her experiences at William Frantz Elementary, including being the only child in her class

When I arrived on the first day, the mob of people standing outside rushed inside of the building behind me. I was escorted to the principal's office where I sat the whole day with my mom, waiting to be assigned to a classroom. But that did not happen because every one of those parents rushed in behind me, went into every classroom, and they pulled out every child. I watched them parade right past me out of the school building. And so by the time I got there on the second day, the school was totally empty.

Ruby Bridges wanted children to relate to her new book.
/ Orchard Books/Scholastic, Inc
Orchard Books/Scholastic, Inc
Ruby Bridges wanted children to relate to her new book.

I think part of the story that lots of people are not aware of is that there were some white parents who actually tried to cross that same picket line, that same mob, during that year, to bring their kids to school with me. But even when that happened, it was only a handful, maybe five, six kids. And the principal would take them and she would hide them so that they would never see me and I would never see them. So needless to say, I spent the entire year in an empty classroom with my teacher, Mrs. Henry, who was white. She had come from Boston to teach me. But those other kids were hidden away and we never really came in contact with each other.

I remember hearing voices, but I never saw kids and it kept me wondering where the voices were coming from. If they were real at all. What I did not know is that every time I would mention it to Mrs. Henry, she would go to the principal and advocate for me. She was saying, "The law's changed and kids can be together now, but you're hiding them from Ruby. If you don't allow them to come together, I'm going to report you to the superintendent." And that forced them to allow Mrs. Henry to take me to where they were being hidden. And that was near the end of the year.

On understanding why others treated her differently

When Mrs. Henry took me to this other classroom and opened the door, and lo and behold, there they were four or five kids sitting there playing, I was so excited. It didn't matter to me what they looked like. I just wanted someone my own age to play with, so I was excited to find them finally.

I have to say that that was the day that I realized that everything was about me and the color of my skin, because a little boy said, "I can't play with you. My mom said not to play with you." And he called me the N-word. And that's when I had my "Aha" moment. The reason why there were no kids here was because of me and the color of my skin. He actually made it make sense. I did not realize what was going on around me until he told me. And that was my first encounter with racism. He introduced it to me.

On passing down her lessons to future generations

You know what I've found in the past 25 years, visiting schools and talking to kids and working with them? I think that they relate to the loneliness. They relate to someone not wanting to play with you, for no real good reason, not giving you a chance. It resonates with them and they don't quite understand why someone would do that, why someone would treat another person like that.

This is Bridges' newest book, with illustrations by Nikkolas Smith.
/ Orchard Books/Scholastic, Inc
Orchard Books/Scholastic, Inc
This is Bridges' newest book, with illustrations by Nikkolas Smith.

What I find is that kids always say, "They didn't want to play with me" and, "I wasn't invited to the party," because of whatever the reason may be. So there are some things in the book that I think they connect to, and I think that they feel like, "You know what? Why don't we give each other a chance, try to get to know each other?"

Everyone at that age wants a friend to play with. And I think that's part of what they resonate with, the fact that it's also explaining a time in history when we couldn't be together. It touches on some of the things that I truly want them to understand, that racism just does not make any sense. And they get that. Once this book is closed and I know that they've gotten that, then I feel like part of my work is done.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Elena Burnett
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
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