Thursday, April 9, 2020

The Bridges of Orleans

Barbara Henry was born in Boston's West Roxbury neighborhood on New Year's Day, 1932. She attended the nearby Girls' Latin School, a richly diverse institution that engendered commonality without needing to teach it explicitly, and stamped out intolerance organically.
After college, Barbara taught in nearby Malden and Quincy, while taking graduate courses in history and government at Boston College. Yearning to visit the places she was learning about, she applied to teach the children of armed forces personnel serving abroad. She ended up at an Air Force base outside of Paris, where she met a dashing lieutenant, who took her back to his home, New Orleans, where they married.
Her love of teaching unabated, Barbara applied to the New Orleans school system, where she was accepted and assigned to teach first graders at the William Franz Elementary School. It was 1960.
Barbara Henry was in place. History awaited.
Ruby Bridges was born on September 8th, 1954, in Tylertown, Mississippi. As a child, she took care of her younger siblings, jumped rope, played softball, and climbed trees. When she was four years old, her family moved to New Orleans. It was 1960.
Ruby Bridges was in place. History awaited.
In its landmark Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas ruling in 1954 (just a few months before Ruby Bridges was born), the U.S. Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional. Despite the federal ruling, many southern states, Louisiana among them, refused to enforce the new laws and zealously resisted integration. Still, in 1960, Louisiana was explicitly ordered to desegregate by a federal court. The Orleans Parish School board responded by requiring black students to pass an "entrance exam" in a transparent attempt to keep black kids out of white schools. To the school board's chagrin, six black children in New Orleans passed the entrance exam. Two of the six decided to stay at their old school. The district transferred three to a school named McDonogh No. 19. The remaining first grader, Ruby Bridges, was assigned to William Franz Elementary School.
The federal court ruling required that schools in New Orleans be integrated by November 14th, 1960. On that day, 6-year-old Ruby, accompanied by her mother and four federal marshals (dispatched by President Eisenhower), walked to William Franz Elementary, making their way through large crowds of protesters throwing objects and yelling horrific racial slurs at her. Police were everywhere, but these were local cops, mostly sympathetic to the protesters, so they did little to quell their disgusting behavior.
When Ruby entered the school, white parents pulled their children out. Every single teacher at William Franz was white, and every single one of them refused to teach Ruby. Except one. You guessed it.
Barbara Henry.
During the entire school year, Barbara taught Ruby alone. Although white parents gradually began bringing their children back to school, no other children were allowed to join Ruby's classroom. It was just Ruby and "Mrs. Henry" (as Ruby would always call her, even as an adult), working on Ruby's lessons side by side at two desks. Ruby wasn't allowed to eat lunch with the other kids, so she ate with Barbara. Ruby wasn't allowed to play with the other kids at recess, so she played with Barbara. When she had to go to the restroom, the federal marshals walked her down the hall.
The marshals continued to accompany Ruby to and from school every day for the rest of the school year. And every day, she would encounter hatred. One woman repeatedly threatened to poison her, so the marshals allowed Ruby to eat only the food that she brought from home. Another woman held up a black baby doll in a coffin.
Yet Ruby did not miss one day of school that year.
In 1960, Ruby Bridges and Barbara Henry integrated William Franz Elementary. All by themselves.

Supplementary material:
Norman Rockwell's iconic painting, The Problem We All Live With, depicts Ruby walking to school with the federal marshals:
(Image from original uploader User:Jengod, Fair use,

Here's a photo of Ruby and the marshals, from the Boston Globe Magazine

Lastly, Ruby and Barbara on Oprah Winfrey's Where Are They Now program in 2014

Attribution Notes:

This essay was inspired by a story told by Valerie Walker, live at The Moth. Background material for this essay was gathered from this article, this Women's History Museum entry, Ruby Bridges' Wikipedia page , Barbara Henry's Wikipedia page, and this Boston Globe Magazine article.