Despite the abolition of slavery in 1865, during the 1950s and 1960s a segregationist culture that denied the African-American community the right to education, health care, participation in political life and wages was still deeply rooted in the United States. . Furthermore, in various aspects of daily life, a discriminatory division between white and black citizens prevailed, as in the case of public transport, where African-Americans occupied the most secluded places.
This was the North American social context on November 14, 1960, when a little girl, born in the city of Tylertown in the state of Mississippi, opened the door to a great historical change. Ruby was only six years old and this was her first day of school. Something remarkable in the development of any child but even more decisive for Ruby Bridges, as her skin color defied the current system. 61 years ago, it became the first black child to attend a school that only accepted white students.
“I went to kindergarten and part of first class in schools for black people, where everyone was just like me. My teacher, the children and the people who worked there, all looked like me and this was considered normal for us”, recalled Ruby Bridges, when in 2018 she visited Portugal to participate in the conference “Where is Equality standing: impacts, challenges and conflicts”, organized by the Francisco Manoel dos Santos Foundation (FFMS).
It was at the request of the National Association for the Advancement of People of Color (NAACP) that Ruby’s parents agreed to have their daughter join a government integration campaign, which allowed Ruby to enroll in William Frantz Elementary School. establishment attended only by white students. “They knocked on our door and asked my parents if they were willing to send their daughter to one of these integrated schools that existed for the first time in the city. My parents immediately decided to take advantage of the opportunity and then told me: ‘It’s good that you behave’”, says Ruby Bridges, in a video shared by FFMS.
When the day came to finally go to the new school for the first time, it wasn’t just a different morning for the six-year-old. It was a milestone date for the entire African-American community. “All my neighbors who lived next door left the house and stood there waiting for me to get ready to go to school”, recorda Ruby Bridges.
It was then that the girl left the house, went downstairs and waiting for her were “four very tall white men”. They were federal police sent by Eisenhower, who approached Ruby’s mother and said: “We are here to escort you and your daughter to school today at the request of the President of the United States”.
Alongside William Frantz Elementary, dozens of local families protested the decision to allow this child to share the same classroom and sit next to their children to learn. They shouted and threw stones, while displaying posters where you could read “race mixing is communism”. Even teachers participated in the demonstration and refused to teach a black student.
The doorbell rang, Ruby was the first to enter the room, she sat down and waited for the teacher to arrive. Meanwhile, parents protesting abroad had invaded the school and demanded to take their children home while pointing fingers at Ruby. “Over 500 children were taken out of that school that day and it happened because I was there”, Ruby said.
The classroom door opened, the teacher entered. “Hello, my name is Barbara Henry and I’m your teacher.” Ruby was amazed: “She is white”. That child had never seen a white teacher before. “Although she looked exactly like those people out there protesting, the teacher had nothing to do with them. We did everything you can imagine in a classroom and not just related to the subject I had to study: we made games, played music and drew”, remembers Ruby, who from then on started taking classes always alone, since the The school principal transferred all the children in the class to others, leaving Ruby isolated. Only the teacher did not give up on her and continued, day after day, to prepare classes just for that child.
That day 61 years ago, Ruby and her teacher taught an equality lesson. “She showed me her heart. I learned at age six that I shouldn’t look at a person and judge them by their skin tone, their appearance, or their origins. This was the lesson I brought from that classroom. It’s the same lesson that I travel with and try to teach every child I know”, says the activist, currently 67 years old.
That historic first day of classes would eventually be portrayed in oil painting “The Problem We All Live With” (1964), by artist Norman Rockwell. The episode was also transported to the big screen, through the film “The History of Ruby Bridges” (1998), made by Euzhan Palcy.
In 2014, a statue of Ruby Bridges, president of a foundation that bears her name, was placed in the courtyard of the William Frantz Elementary School.
Source: Expresso by expresso.pt.
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