A Personal Essay by Ruby Bridges’s Teacher
by Barbara Henry
In 1960, when a six-year-old African American girl named Ruby Bridges was allowed to enroll at the previously all-white William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, Louisiana, no teacher was willing to teach her…except Barbara Henry.
From social alienation and threats of physical violence to aggression from her own principal and fellow teachers, Barbara fought every day to give Ruby as normal an elementary school education as possible.
Barbara was kind enough to write the personal essay below about her experience of being the teacher to the remarkable and brave Ruby.
“For arrogance and hatred are the wares pedaled in the thoroughfares. How but in custom and in ceremony are innocence and beauty born.” —W. B. Yeats
At this, the 57th anniversary of November 14, 1960, we honor and pay tribute in custom and in ceremony—gifts of our nation’s revered traditions—to that singular and historic civil rights victory in New Orleans.
That victory which secured those initial steps taken at the William Frantz School and signaled the end of racially segregated public schools in New Orleans, Louisiana, and ultimately all of America’s public schools not yet in compliance with the six-year-old Supreme Court ruling of 1954 in Brown vs. Board of Education, demanding for America’s black minority students the same fullness of the promise—the guarantee of equality—in our Constitution’s 14th Amendment of 1868.
The enormity of the civil rights victory of 1960 is memorialized and kept ever present before us in Norman Rockwell’s iconic painting, The Problem We All Live With. The image of those first steps taken by Ruby Nell Bridges are seared into our mind’s eye and continue to singe our national conscience for the cruelty, the injustice of racism, while at the same time the painting offers hope for a new order of justice through the presence of the federal marshals representing the full commitment of our government toward ensuring the law of the land for all of America’s citizens.
So stunning, so magnetic in its fullness the reality and symbolism are in the story of the desegregation of the William Frantz Elementary School.
But, however captivating is the singular story of Ruby Bridges, as a passionate student of American history, I feel compelled to entice you to pursue the political and legal background of 1960s achievements. It’s fabulously captivating: I’d love this piece be one to at least let your fingers google these legendary names so intimately dedicated, committed to achieving the rights of equality sought for a century: Thurgood Marshall; Judge John Minor Wisdom; Creole attorney Alexander Pierre Tureaud, a lion of courage and legal pursuits; Judge J. Skelly Wright; and do not forget the Comité des Citoyens of New Orleans, whose brilliant efforts dominated the mid- to late 19th century. Of course there were rascals, such as Governor of Louisiana Jimmie Davis and Leander Perez, a brilliant and devious activist for segregation.
I expect your surprise and amazement will give rise to a chorus of wows.
How poignant that we give honor and celebrate both November 11 and November 14—dates so closely linked in timing and goals. The valiant contributions of America’s veterans, in all their racial and ethnic diversity, who fought for the same ideals as the army of civil rights fighters—that which is at the center of what makes America unique and world renowned: equality of opportunity.
It was love that brought me to New Orleans, after having just married in Boston the former Air Force first lieutenant I had met in Paris during the time I was teaching Air Force children in Dreux, France. It was a moment when I felt “my cup runneth over.” I was in love with love, with the world, and delighted in the treat of exploring some of New Orleans’s charming traditional and well-known sites.
Of course, love is infinite. And after two months of getting acquainted with my new city, I had the surprise of a lifetime and in a way I could never have imagined. It all came in a phone call from the New Orleans superintendent of schools, Dr. James Redmond, offering me a first grade teaching position, and the school was to be one of the chosen to be desegregated. I was totally thrilled, as touring had lost its charm and I was eager to get back to students. Above all, I was so excited that my new school was to experience something so special.
Two days later, on Monday morning of November 14, as I prepared for a new day, all sounded just perfect. That was until I drove to an adjacent street to park my car and saw that now-so-well-documented mob before the school. I clearly remember my concern as to how to get to the school’s front door, as I presumed soon a class of students would be waiting for me. It seemed that chalk-white moral dictum that reigned on high in my Latin class for six years—“Duty first, honor always, self last”—was the beacon that guided me through that angry sea of protesters to reach the school’s front door.
And then, another image of being alone—so unforgettable. I rang the school doorbell and waited, while behind me, not far away, stood the wild, angry mob. Twice refused entry and for not knowing what else to do, I rang the bell again, and the door opened with the apology that I appeared to them as a reporter. I thought I looked great for my first day of school—but how interesting that there was an accepted look for a teacher, and I guess I wasn’t it.
I so clearly can see myself inside the school, wondering why there was no welcome, until within a few minutes fear and anger seemed palpable, and I knew there was no normal there. Parents who appeared defiant amid so many federal marshals is an ever-present memory. Soon after seeing my bare classroom, I was told if I returned tomorrow, I’d meet my new student. I did not mind that I wasn’t welcomed, but I was certain I was returning. I was going to meet one who was as unwelcomed as I. And how beautiful was that forever memorable moment when I took Ruby’s hand from the hand of one of those seemingly human towers, and together we left the line of faculty—a cameo of the old order of segregation—and began our mission, alone and together through June’s school closing. Oh, the treasured, cherished memories of our loving year together. How easy it was, the magic: two strangers with hearts free of prejudice became as one. We had only each other and we, in truth, needed no other. As much as I was there for her, she was there for me.
I still consider our first moments each day as something sacred; Ruby, after making her way through cruel shouts, would enter the room as if a guardian angel had just placed her down—and then, in her beautiful outfit, she’d come to greet me as her gentle smile broke and her gorgeous eyes looked up with a sense of wonder for whatever adventure would be ours that day. Of all the truly wondrous happenings of our successful year, the above are forever memories!
Only the blossoming of Ruby’s innate gifts and academic ability allowed for our parting to be less sad. She had achieved all that was asked of her—a moral, political, and social victory could be claimed, and Ruby owned her academic achievement.
Our love story lived on, each never forgetting the other and expecting we would one day meet again. Secured through the decades was the now-well-recognized photo of us at the blackboard. But she was always present in my heart and in my mind’s eye.
And then there was another changed-my-life phone call when I heard a wonderfully melodious voice say, “Hello, Ms. Henry.” I knew—and instantly cried out, “Ruby Nell.” It was a dream come true. The magic continued in our unforgettable meeting on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Now, tall and stunning, it was as if it were yesterday when that magnetic smile appeared and her big beautiful brown eyes met mine. In a minute, there we were holding hands, sitting side by side as we did at our desks decades earlier.
Chapter two of our lives began soon after in a visit to New Orleans when we together prepared presentations to tell our story to educators at a book fair there. I must say we were a captivating duo sharing an incredible story with so many powerful moral and social values. While crossing the country in such venues, the best part for me as a teacher was to learn the powerful units of study the enthusiastic and creative teachers had done with their students. To the teachers should go the credit and applause for their furthering aspects of the story to help students realize their role in making their world a more harmonious one—where respect for one another’s sacredness and acceptance of differences dominate. Once coming to know the Ruby Bridges story, I believe there is always a piece of it that becomes a part of you, empowering and sensitive to injustice. Of all the inspiring and memorable places Ruby and I have spoken together, the one that still thrills is our speaking before the Norman Rockwell original at the Norman Rockwell Museum. Imagine!
That second chapter has ended as Ruby speaks professionally, solitarily. But a third chapter for me has emerged in perhaps the most joyful of ways—visiting and speaking to many public elementary and middle school students for whom this story has touched upon sensitive issues, while also enlarging their awareness of the importance of kindness and their efforts to understand the richness that the acceptance of differences may bring to them.
And middle and upper school students are fascinated by the legal and political champions and their achievements—a part I love.
But above all, I am ever surprised and moved by the sensitivities of some of the minority students to what they see as my kindness to Ruby and my love for her. And students do appreciate real-life stories of moral courage and determination to overcome challenges. One day as a guest reader at one of the many wonderful Boston public schools (of which I am ever in awe), I read the stories of Wilma Rudolph and Hank Aaron to students. And in their appreciation letters, they wrote about how they like stories with “life lessons.” They see the possibilities in their lives where challenges are ever present. And, indeed, students see in the Ruby Bridges story life lessons of courage and kindness.
Today, I am constantly inspired by the evidence everywhere of Martin Luther King’s dream for America. The rich tapestry of diversity woven into our nation’s institutions, beginning with school-age children, is the bountiful gift the legions of pursuers for justice and equality promised all of America’s citizens long ago in 1868.
We honor and celebrate the fullness of the Ruby Bridges story for its uniqueness in touching hearts and never leaving them, empowering its discoverers to further Martin Luther King’s dream.
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