Civil Rights Pioneer Ruby Bridges Visits Chapin

“I see a lot of different faces,” the speaker remarked as she looked out into the packed Assembly Room. Seated before her was the entire Chapin Upper School, a diverse group of students from a variety of backgrounds. In profound ways, this special guest’s extraordinary experiences more than five decades ago paved the way for these young women, and all students, regardless of the color of their skin, to be able to learn and play together in the same school.

The speaker’s name was none other than Ruby Bridges, the lifelong activist and Civil Rights pioneer who was the first black child to desegregate a Louisiana public elementary school when she was in first grade. In 1999, Ms. Bridges established the Ruby Bridges Foundation to promote tolerance and create change through education. She visited Chapin on April 19 to share her incredible story in age-appropriate ways for students in every grade, including during this moving presentation for Classes 8-12.  

“I really appreciate the opportunity to speak to you … and to deliver a message I am extra passionate about,” began Ms. Bridges. Although an emerging cold softened her voice, there was nothing that could have lessened the impact her words had on the audience.

Ms. Bridges was born in 1954, the same year that the United States Supreme Court declared, in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education, that separate schools for black and white students were unconstitutional. Southern states, however, were averse to integration causing federal courts to intervene. In Louisiana, where the Bridges family had recently moved for better job opportunities, desegregation finally began to take place in the fall of 1960. The school district instituted deliberately deceptive entrance exams to determine whether black students could compete academically in the all-white schools. Ms. Bridges, then six years old, and five other students (all of whom happened to be girls) passed the test.

By the time the exhaustive process was complete, it was already November. Of the three girls assigned to attend William Frantz Elementary School, just a few blocks from the Bridges’ home in New Orleans, two decided to stay in their current schools, leaving Ruby on her own. (The three other students were sent to McDonogh No. 19 Elementary School, also in New Orleans).

“There I was, about to walk smack into the Civil Rights Movement,” Ms. Bridges exclaimed. As she expressively described, and in a brief video she showed, her first day was marked by immense tumult, with angry protesters swarming the school grounds. Some even shouted death threats, punctuated, in one case, by a black doll in a coffin, a particularly frightening image for her, as Ms. Bridges remembered. Many parents withdrew their white children because they did not want their sons and daughters to go to school with a black child. To keep her safe, four federal marshals escorted Ruby and her mother to school each day for an entire year.

Of all the teachers at Frantz Elementary, only one -- a remarkable woman named Barbara Henry – agreed to take Ruby on as her student in first grade. And because the remaining students were not permitted by their parents to be in the same classroom as a black student, Ruby was her one and only student. Throughout the year, as Ms. Bridges described, she thrived under Mrs. Henry’s kind and compassionate tutelage. “Mrs. Henry showed me her heart. I loved school because of her.” She also discovered the lifelong lesson that goodness has nothing to do with race and everything to do with the strength of one’s character. Mrs. Henry and Ms. Bridges developed a deep friendship that endures to this day.

“What I went through is the reason your first day wasn’t this way,” Ms. Bridges told the Upper School students, noting that she didn’t realize at the time that she was making history. When, years later, Ms. Bridges searched for a mention of her ordeal in the library, she found references to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks but nothing about her central role in school integration.

“I was really disappointed. There was nothing about me in my history books,” she remarked. “I realized I needed to tell my story myself,” she added.

Through the important work of her foundation, as well as a film and an autobiography, Ms. Bridges discusses racism through the lens of her momentous childhood and other painful times in her life, while calling on young people – including the captivated students at this Assembly -- to carry her urgent message forward.

“We are at a time when this is your moment, your movement,” she declared, gesturing to the rapt audience of students. “I hope I am able to inspire you to actively change your world. That’s what I did at six years old and you can do the same.”

As she concluded her presentation by showing a series of black-and-white photographs of her days at William Frantz Elementary School – among them a shot of the marshals shielding Ruby and her mother from the mob, a photo of Mrs. Henry teaching Ruby a math lesson, and a touching image of an overjoyed Ruby with the remaining white students after she was at last permitted to play with them – there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Ruby Bridges stands out as a stunning example of Chapin’s motto “Brave for others, brave for self.” Indeed, her courage, passion and bravery know no bounds.

Ms. Bridges, age 6, with her classmates: