60 years ago, Ruby Bridges integrated a New Orleans school. Here's what she tells kids today

Domenica Bongiovanni
Indianapolis Star

INDIANAPOLIS — Ruby Bridges is a woman with a career, children, and grandchildren now, but the nation will always treasure her 6-year-old self.

On Nov. 14, 1960, federal marshals escorted her past angry, threatening crowds and up the steps of the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans.

Bridges was one of the first Black students to integrate public schools after the Supreme Court's landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. While many people worked against her, she formed a special bond with her teacher, Barbara Henry, and continued to attend school. The image of Bridges' tiny frame walking in front of hate speech scrawled on a wall became iconic in Norman Rockwell's painting “The Problem We All Live With." 

Saturday marked the 60th anniversary of Bridges' journey. In honor of the occasion, The Children's Museum of Indianapolis hosted her via a Zoom call Wednesday evening for her young fans.

Ruby Bridges was one of the first Black students to integrate public schools in 1960.

Bridges' New Orleans classroom is a section of the museum's "Power of Children" exhibit. It so closely resembles her experience that she said she could still hear the crowd chant "two, four, six, eight, we don't want to integrate" when she walked in.  A cabinet holds replicas of sandwiches — a reminder that Bridges would bring her lunch but hid it because she didn't want to eat alone.

During the Zoom call, Bridges recalled her memories of that day in 1960. She also talked about her work to bring about racial healing and equity in schools and her new book, This is Your Time — a letter to young people today. She wanted to tell them about the similarities of what she saw in 1960 and 2020's protests, and how change happens. Here are highlights from what she said Wednesday.

Bridges didn't fully realize her place in history until later

Bridges grew up in the South and was familiar with Mardi Gras — and on that day in 1960, she thought the yelling crowds were part of the celebration. Marshals spent the next six months walking her into class each day through a dangerous mob that threw things and shouted.

Sometimes they carried a tiny coffin with a Black doll inside. It gave the little girl nightmares she was only able to overcome by kneeling beside her bed and praying. By the time Bridges was in second grade, she said the protests had ended.

Ruby Bridges (bottom right screen) spoke with fans of The Children’s Museum and Jennifer Pace Robinson, vice president of experience development and family learning, via Zoom on Wednesday night. Robinson sat in the “Power of Children” exhibit, part of which is dedicated to Bridges’ story.

"Pretty much, I think, people in the city were a little bit embarrassed about how they behaved because the whole world watched it. And so no one talked about it," she said.

Not until Bridges was older did she see the Rockwell painting and realize how what she thought was confined to her block was actually a major event. Bridges says now that her innocence protected her.

Her mother, Lucille Bridges, had explained previously in interviews that she wanted her kids to have a better education than what she'd had. Ruby Bridges said her parents didn't explain what would happen before Nov. 14, 1960, because if they did, it would have scared their daughter.

"What would you say to a 6-year-old when you're about to go into school and they don't want you there, and there are going to be lots of people outside throwing things and screaming at you? There's no way you could explain that," Bridges said.

Before she spoke on the Zoom call, she shared on Instagram that Lucille Bridges had died Tuesday and honored her mom's courage.

More:Lucille Bridges, mother of civil rights icon Ruby Bridges, dies at 86

Bridges' teacher showed her how character counts

When the little girl walked through the school's doors, she saw someone who looked like the protesters outside but who behaved quite differently. While other teachers quit their jobs to avoid teaching Black children, Henry had only just moved to the city and welcomed her new student.

"I remember that very first day when I walked up the stairs and into the classroom, she was standing there. I have to say that I was a little bit apprehensive, even at 6 years old, because she looked exactly like the crowd outside the school. She was white, and the crowd was white and screaming and yelling and throwing things. But in a very soft-spoken voice, she said, 'Come in and take a seat,'" Bridges said.

"She began to teach me. But what I soon came to realize is that Mrs. Henry looked exactly like the people outside, but she wasn't like them... She showed me her heart. And I knew very quickly that she was kind."

Bridges' first memories of Henry reverberated again when she heard Martin Luther King Jr. say that he dreamed of a day when his children would live in a country where they "will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

"It went right back to Mrs. Henry and the crowd outside, and I felt like, 'Well, I already know that lesson," she said.

Ruby Bridges speaks to kids today to bring about racial healing and promote equity.

What she tells kids today

Bridges reaches back to her experiences at age 6 to relate to kids she speaks to today and to not hold back the truth from them.

"I believe history is sacred, and none of us have the right to change or alter history in any way... [But] we are using obsolete textbooks," Bridges said. "History is not being taught the way history happened."

She said she believes more good than evil exists but that it will take looking past differences to stand up together. She gave kids examples of that from her own past and encouraged them to pick up the torch today through social justice and community service activism.

"We have to judge each other by what's in our heart, and that will bring us together and unite us. That alone will defeat the evil or the bad that's in the world. I think what keeps me hopeful is that we will do that and that our kids will push us to do that," Bridges said. 

"I want to make sure that no kid goes through what I went through just to go to school. When I'm in schools talking to kids, I see their hearts. I see their pain, I see sadness sometimes. I see love, and it just brings me back to that classroom and being 6. It inspires me."

Follow Domenica Bongiovanni on Twitter: @domenicareports.