Last month, an e-mail made the rounds of 7-year-old Sasha Obama on her first day of school in Washington, D.C., flanked by Secret Service agents. The photo of the President’s daughter was juxtaposed with a picture of another child going to school—a 6-year-old Ruby Bridges on her first day at William Frantz Elementary in New Orleans in 1960. The first Black child to attend an all-White elementary school in the city, with hundreds of White residents angrily rallied outside in protest, Bridges, whose image was immortalized by Norman Rockwell, was similarly escorted by federal marshals. The image—two little Black girls, so protected, but under such different circumstances—was both a painful reminder of our nation’s past and a hopeful salute to the present. In honor of Black History Month, ESSENCE.com talked with Ruby Bridges, now 54, about that day in 1960 and what this moment in our nation’s history means to her.
ESSENCE.COM: I know you’ve seen the photograph of Sasha Obama’s first day of school, surrounded by Secret Service agents, juxtaposed with your first day of school surrounded by federal marshals. What did you think of it?
RUBY BRIDGES: It was very moving. A friend of mine said she cried for both girls—one with tears of sadness, one with tears of joy. And that’s sort of what I felt when I saw it, remembering back to my first day of school but being so proud of the fact that here she was, going into school with guards but under totally different circumstances. It put things in perspective, the sacrifices that not only my parents made, but so many people. I felt a sense of pride for being a part of it. Having to go through that wasn’t in vain.
ESSENCE.COM: You mentioned your parents. Sasha Obama is, of course, famous because of who her parents are, but we seldom hear about the role your parents played in you going to William Frantz Elementary. Why did they want you to go?
BRIDGES: Neither of them had a formal education. They were sharecroppers, both born in Mississippi, so they were denied the opportunity to get the education that they wanted. So I think they saw this as a chance to offer me a better education, so they did. They paid dearly for it. My father was fired from his job because they found out that it was his daughter attending the White school.
ESSENCE.COM:You were 6 years old when you walked into William Frantz Elementary School. Did you have any idea what you were getting into?
BRIDGES: No, none at all. You have to remember, I was a 6-year-old child. Especially in African-American families, you are, for the most part, seen and not heard. Parents never sat you down and tried to explain things like that to you. And then, if you think about it, how much of that could you explained to a 6-year-old without making the situation worse? I was told that I was going to a new school, and that was it.
Norman Rockwell’s painting “The problem we all live with” depicts Ruby Bridges going to kindergarten on the first day of court-ordered desegregation of New Orleans public school.
ESSENCE.COM: What was your reaction to what you saw greeting you?
BRIDGES: Having been accustomed to Mardis Gras in New Orleans, I was accustomed to seeing lots of people lining the street. And screaming and yelling. This was different, but in my mind it wasn’t. When I turned the corner that day and saw them, I thought I was in the midst of a parade. They were screaming and shouting and waving their hands.
ESSENCE.COM: When did it hit you what was going on?
BRIDGES: Getting into the school that day, there was lots of confusion and it seemed really busy. What was actually happening was that all of the White people, once I arrived at the school that day, they immediately proceeded to come into every classroom, and they removed their children. The next day when I came back, escorted by marshals and rushed inside the building through the crowds, it was totally empty. I was left in an empty school for a whole year. I was escorted to the classroom, which is where I met my teacher for the first time. She looked like all those White people screaming outside. But she wasn’t like them. She was not racist or prejudiced. She was the nicest teacher I ever had, and she made school so much fun for me. I honestly believe that that was the lesson I was supposed to learn, the lesson that Dr. King tried to teach us, that we can’t judge people by looking at them. That is the lesson I took away.
ESSENCE.COM: What impact has that experience had on your life?
BRIDGES: It allowed me to realize that children come into the world with a clean heart. No baby will look at another and say, “I’m not going to live next door to you,” but as we get older it gets passed on to us. It made me feel like, if I wanted to build a legacy for myself, it would be to work with kids and help them understand that that is how racism continues to grow. If we are to stop it, then maybe we need to start with kids. And that’s what I wanted my work to be.
ESSENCE.COM: Is that what you do under your foundation, talking to children around the country?
BRIDGES: Yes, for the most part. I also started a small cultural arts program in the very school that I had integrated, which ended up becoming an all-Black, rundown inner city school. I felt obligated to make that school better. So I was working at that for a very long time, and we even declared the school a historical site months before Hurricane Katrina hit. I thought putting it in the national registry would help the building get federal money, but then Katrina hit and destroyed it. It’s been closed, going on four years now. But FEMA has come in, and we’re working on it. I want to reopen it as a charter school, an integrated school where children of all backgrounds and races will attend. We’ll allow them to grow together and hopefully we’ll be moving toward the dream that Dr. King had. I want the curriculum to specialize in civil rights and social justice, and teach history the way it happened. We learn a little bit about Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement, but so many other stories, like mine, are swept under the rug.
ESSENCE.COM: Throughout President Obama’s political ascent, many people have drawn direct connections between the struggle of the Civil Rights Movement and this moment in history. What has his journey meant for you?
BRIDGES: I think it’s amazing. We say he’s the first African-American President, but this man is of mixed race. That speaks loudly to me; the fact that maybe he is in a better position to be compassionate to all people. After Dr. King was taken away from us, it’s been 40 years since people stepped back from the movement and we’ve been without real leadership. Then all of a sudden, here comes this person who is compassionate to all people across racial lines, and not just in the United States, but in the world. That’s the message King left us with, and now 40 years later here’s someone with the same message and he’s leading the country. Shouldn’t we sit up and take notice?