Saturday 9 May 2015

Ruby & The New Orleans School Crisis

"Racism is a grown-up disease and we must stop using our children to spread it."
Ruby Bridges

During "US-American Apartheid", the New Orleans community did everything to postpone the mandatory desegregation of schools. Although a federal judge had ordered the desegregation of New Orleans schools in 1956, both local school boards and state officials resisted its implementation until federal Judge Wright ordered to start desegregation in September 1960. Massive resistance continued. The Louisiana legislature and the Citizens Council began a discussion about closing schools in order to avoid Wright's plan. State court Judge Oliver P. Carriere stated that only the Louisiana state legislature had the right to determine the "racial makeup" of the state's public schools, an interposition resolution declared decisions concerning desegregation a "usurpation" of power, a mandatory jail term and fines were to be introduced for federal judges attempting to impose school desegregation, state representatives called for the arrest of Judge Wright for "causing disorder, chaos, strife and turmoil in this state", Monday, the 14th of November (the day four black six-year-old girls were to be introduced to previously all-white schools) was declared a statewide school holiday, segregationists reacted with public violence, the police arrested 250 persons, etc. (via).
"Don't wait for your daughter to be raped by these Congolese. Don't wait until the burr-heads are forced into your schools. Do something about it now." Leander Perez, district attorney

Photograph above: "Federal Marshal Wallace Downs rides in auto with wide-eyed girl, Gail Etienne, to McDonogh 19 school in New Orleans, November 14, 1960." (literally via). After high school, Gail Etienne took secretarial courses at Southern University in Louisiana (via).

On 14th of November 1960, finally, the two elementary schools McDonough No. 19 and William Frantz Elementary were desegregated. Five of 137 black applicants had been accepted for two schools (via). "The McDonogh Three" Leona Tate, Tessie Prevost and Gail Etienne attended Mc Donogh, Ruby Bridges attended William Frantz Elementary (via). Fearing controversy, the fifth girl was removed at the very last minute after discovering that her parents had not been married when she was born (via). The four girls graduated from high school in 1972. In 1984, the "New Orleans Four" were recognised by city officals for their "extraordinary faith and courage in pursuit of equal education for all" (via).

Ruby Nell Bridges (photograph above) was born on 8th of September 1954, the year the US Supreme Court ruled that all schools must desegregate. Ruby had gone to a segregated kindergarten and after passing psychological and education tests, she was the only black child chosen to attend William Frantz Elementary in 1960 (via).  Her mother, Lucille, wanted to give her girl opportunities she had missed in her life. Her father, Abon, however, was reluctant to send her to the previously all-white school since he did not want to endanger his family (via).

"Each and every one of us is born with a clean heart. Our babies know nothing about hate or racism. But soon they begin to learn - and only from us. We keep racism alive. We pass it on to our children. We owe it to our children to help them keep their clean start."
Ruby Bridges

Photograph above: "Guarded by three Deputy U.S. Marshals, young Ruby Bridges enters newly integrated William Frantz school in New Orleans, La. on Dec. 5, 1960 to begin her third week as the only black student in the school. Integration in two New Orleans schools began on Nov. 14. Approximately seventeen white students entered the school despite attempts of a total white boycott" (literally via).

On her first school day, Ruby and her mother were escorted by four federal marshals. And the escort was necessary. Ruby faced public humiliation, death threats and racial slurs on her way to school. One woman held a black baby doll in a coffin, another threatened to poison her. Her father lost his job, her mother was no longer welcome as a grocery customer, her grandparents were evicted from the farm they had lived on for decades. Most of the approximately 2000 parents withdrew their children (via), Pam Foreman and Yolanda Gabrielle were the only white girls to stay. John Steinbeck and John Updike watched what was happening, Updike wrote about the fact that only two parents let their children continue to go to William Frantz. Integration turned neighbour against neigbour, people involved could lose their jobs. Pam Foreman said that years "later, people would say some terrible things when they would meet Daddy."  Yolanda's mother Daisy Gabrielle was called a communist and was told that her daughter could get a disease from being in an integrated school. Protesters made bomb threats, threw rocks and lightbulbs filled with creosote holding the bible (via).
"(...) one way or another, under the harsh and ingenious pressures that a community can apply, all have been chipped away, leaving, for us to see, two people - a Christian minister and an ex-WAC whose husband spent three years in a foxhole in New Guinea and wasn't going to let a mob of women tell him what to do. Out of two thousand, two."
John Updike

Photographs above: Rev. Lloyd Foreman (left) walking with his five-year-old daughter Pam Foreman to the newly integrated William Frantz School where they were blocked by jeering mothers on 29th of November 1960 (via) and Daisy Gabrielle walking her daughter Yolanda Gabrielle home on 30th of November 1960 (via).

"And even though she was white and she looked exactly like the people outside the school, she showed me her heart." Ruby Bridges on Barbara Henry
Teachers were not willing to accept Ruby Bridges, either ... except Barbara Henry who had moved to New Orleans from Boston (via). Teacher and student spent a year together, side-by-side, separated from the others.
"One of the most distinguishing features of my time as a student at Girls' Latin School in Boston was the respect and sense of worth given to every student, irrespective of class, community, or color." Barbara Henry
"The morning of Monday, November 14, 1960, my husband followed me to the area. We had to park a distance from the school because of the mobs. I had to make my way through that raging sea of protesters to the front barricade, where I met a policeman and gave him my name. My whole life, in a way, had prepared me for that moment. 
My first moments with Ruby are as clear today as they were then. This beautiful little black girl, all dressed in pink. The only clue she was going to school and not to a party was she had her school bag and lunchbox. When kids are shy, they raise their heads a little bit. But enough for me to see her beautiful brown eyes and magnetic smile. I just fell in love with Ruby. How could your heart not be taken by a scene like that?

We walked upstairs to begin our long, solitary, and wonderful journey. Our only classmates were the federal marshals at the door. I was the gym teacher, the music teacher. We sang “Davy Crockett.” We’d do jumping jacks and pretend jumping rope. And I was just so certain I would give Ruby everything I could to help her become a skilled reader. We created our own oasis of love and learning. We each had hearts free of prejudice. That was the bond that united us and has become indomitable all these many years later. (...)

Many kids write letters to me expressing their appreciation for my kindness for Ruby. That’s so powerful for teachers to realize  - how quickly children absorb the attitude of their teacher: the caring, sensitivity, and sense of worth and respect. The ripples are endless. To make a difference in a person’s life and to shape their awareness and caring for other people - what can be better than that?"

Barbara Henry

One year later, in 1961, eight black first graders entered previously all-white schools in New Orleans. The boycott continued but much more peaceful than it had been the year before (via). The pace of school desegregation in New Orleans remained slow (via) and it took New Orleans public schools about ten years to "fully" integrate. In 2004/2005 (the year before Hurricane Katrina), 94% of New Orleans public school students were black (via), William Frantz is 97% black now (via). Today, Ruby Bridges says that schools are reverting back: "You almost feel like you're back in the '60s." (via)

Photograph above: "Mass transfer of white pupils from New Orleans' two integrated elementary schools to segregated public schools in St. Bernard parish was begun today, November 23, 1960. Fourth, fifth and sixth grade pupils enrolled in McDonogh 19 and William Frantz schools, integrated last week by federal court order, were being accepted for enrollment in St. Bernard's Arabi, Carolyn Park and St. Claude Heights elementary schools" (literally via).

Photograph above: "New Orleans students are loaded onto buses to be transported to St. Bernard Parish, November 28, 1960, after McDonogh 19 school was integrated in September" (literally via).

Ruby Bridges became a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement (via). In 1964, Norman Rockwell dedicated the 36x58 inches painting "The Problem We All Live With" to Ruby Bridges depicting her on her way to school escorted by four deputy US marshals: see

- photographs via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via, all rights by their respective owners

Ruby Bridges and Barbara Henry reunited in 1996 after 35 years: watch (2 min.)


  1. Blogs like this are beautiful.

    1. Hello Eric, many thanks for stopping by and leaving a beautiful comment!