Ruby Bridges, who in 1960 became one of the first African-Americans to attend an all-white school in Louisiana during the New Orleans school desegregation process, recently visited Spring ISD to share her story and talk with district students.
HOUSTON – Feb. 28, 2018 – An icon of the civil rights movement for her role in U.S. public school desegregation, Ruby Bridges is no stranger to the spotlight. In November of 1960, at just six years old, she became one of the first African-American children to attend an all-white school in Louisiana – William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans’ Upper 9th Ward. Bridges has spent much of the past two decades speaking to students and others around the country about her experience, and on the morning of Feb. 20, she paid a visit to Spring High School, where she spoke with a select group of 300 Spring ISD high school students who were chosen from across the district to participate.
“It was a truly good experience,” said Doila Omburo, a Dekaney sophomore who came to hear Bridges speak. “Learning about what she went through, her perseverance, I don’t even know what to say. Going through what she went through, God made that possible, that’s what I think.”
Although she is often presented as an emblem of courage for being one of the first African-American children to attend a previously all-white school, Bridges insisted that for her, as a six-year-old at that time in history, it was just as much about obeying her parents when they informed her she would be attending a new school. Only later did the impact of her time as a student at William Frantz Elementary School become clear.
“I didn’t really feel that brave,” Bridges told the audience of Spring ISD students. “I think what protected me was the innocence of a child.”
She loved her teacher, Barbara Henry, who had volunteered for the controversial assignment of teaching Bridges. Still, Bridges’ experience as the only black student at the school was a painfully lonely one, especially since the school administration at first isolated her from other students to avoid difficulties. Eventually, however, Henry convinced the principal to introduce Bridges to the other students so they could get to know each other. Upon meeting Bridges for the first time, the response of one young boy in particular struck Bridges and has stuck with her through the years.
“He said, ‘I can’t play with you,’” Bridges told the Spring ISD students during an emotional moment of her talk, also recounting to them the racial slur the boy had used. “He told me, ‘My mom said not to play with you.’ That was the day I understood what was happening, that I understood this was about the color of my skin.”
Bridges went on in her address to challenge students to examine their own views and to think about the lessons handed down to them – both spoken and unspoken – lessons they might be unconsciously perpetuating in their own lives and friendships.
“So what about you?” Bridges asked. “Do you care what your friends look like? Each and every one of us come into the world with a clean heart, but one of the reasons we’re still dealing with racism today is because somebody passes it on. And the part I don’t understand is, with all the issues you already have on your plate as young people growing up today – from drugs to bullying to school shootings – why would you take racism and put it on your plate, too, and keep it alive? Racism is just another form of hatred.”
She recounted the story of her eldest son, who was murdered on a New Orleans street in 2005. After being shot multiple times, Bridges said, he was helped by a stranger who rendered aid and took him to the hospital, where he survived a few more hours before passing away. Bridges asked students pointedly whether they thought she cared what the person looked like who helped her son.
“I refuse to believe there’s more evil out there in the world than good,” she said, “but we all have to stand up and make a choice. The truth is, you need each other. If this world is going to get better, you’re going to have to change it.”
Spring High School student Lidia Garcia was among those who came to hear Bridges speak. Afterward, in the auditorium’s lobby, she reflected on Bridges’ challenge in telling students to make a difference starting in their own schools and peer groups.
“I think it’s a powerful message she shared with us,” Garcia said. “It’s not easy, but it’s something I would like to learn and share in my own life – turning something negative into something positive. Even with all that she experienced, she left us with optimism. It was really inspiring.”
Bridges’ speaking schedule regularly takes her to campuses across the country to talk with students, but she doesn’t usually accept invitations during Black History Month. The February requests, she said, had become too numerous, and she also felt that overemphasizing African-American history in February missed an important point.
“I believe this is our shared history,” Bridges said, “and it should be taught every day. In my talk, I’m sharing my personal history with the students, but what I really want to do is talk with them about where we are today. I want them to understand that racism has no place in the hearts and minds of our children, and that if we’re going to get past racism, it’s going to have to come from them.”