She was an adult when she first set eyes on Norman Rockwell's famous painting of her -- a 6-year-old girl integrating William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans' Ninth Ward.
For years, the young girl herself had no idea the image existed. Then, when she was 18 or so, an out-of-town reporter pulled out a print of the painting and said, "I want to talk to you about this." Ruby Bridges looked at it and realized the enormity of what she had done. "I thought, 'Oh, my God, this was important. This changed our country,'" she says.
Norman Rockwell had painted what the nation saw on newscasts -- a small girl with braids, a crisp white dress and white tennis shoes. Her back is straight, her eyes focused straight ahead, and she's walking flanked by big men with yellow armbands that read "U.S. Marshal." Behind her, "nigger" and "KKK" are scrawled on the wall. A thrown tomato lies splattered on the ground.
Rockwell called the painting The Problem We All Live With. LOOK magazine published it as a two-page illustration in January 1964, four years after Bridges walked up the school's steps and integrated the all-white elementary school. The painting has since become one of Rockwell's most famous works.
Bridges, whose married name is Ruby Bridges Hall, found Rockwell's painting startlingly accurate. "It so captured what was happening at that time," she says, sitting at the counter at Big Shirley's, in the Treme neighborhood. On the other side of the restaurant, teachers from John McDonogh Senior High School have pushed together several tables for an end-of-the-year lunch. No one seems to recognize the woman who, 44 years ago, changed the face of New Orleans schools.
IT'S NOT THAT HALL HASN'T BEEN IN the public eye. Within the past decade, she's been the subject of a popular Disney movie called Ruby Bridges and of two bestselling children's books, one that she authored herself. She's received honorary doctorates and degrees, co-chaired a campaign on forgiveness with Desmond Tutu and Jimmy Carter, and in 2001 received the Presidential Citizens Award from President Bill Clinton.
Last month, Hall celebrated the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision at a gala event in Washington, D.C., where the NAACP and Howard University honored her alongside Carter and Bill Cosby. Just this past Saturday, June 5, she traveled to Stockbridge, Mass., and gave the keynote address at the Norman Rockwell Museum.
These days, Hall is often on the road, visiting schools as an author or as part of her work with the Ruby Bridges Foundation. She rents a storage facility just to accommodate all the mail she gets, much of it from schoolchildren. And in other cities, she frequently finds herself flocked by autograph seekers and wellwishers.
Not in New Orleans.
"For me, it's Ruby Bridges and Ruby Hall," she says, shrugging her shoulders. "When I'm here in New Orleans, I'm Ruby Hall. It's downtime for me. I can walk around here and no one knows."
KIDS OFTEN ASK HALL, "Couldn't you have said no? Why didn't you ask your parents to stay home?" Her answer is simple -- she was 6 years old in the 1960s, which was different than being 6 years old in 2004. "I think today, we spend more time explaining things to our children," she says.
On Nov. 14, 1960, Lucille Bridges had not prepared her daughter for the angry crowds or the spotlight. On that first day, she merely said, "Ruby, you're going to a new school today. I want you to behave."
Lucille and her husband, Abon Bridges, had both grown up near Tylertown, Miss. Their daughter Ruby was born there in September 1954, the same year that the U.S. Supreme Court handed down Brown v. Board, the decision that would eventually force New Orleans to integrate its public schools. "The Brown versus Board decision was May 17," says Hall. "When school opened in September, I was born. For me, it was almost like fate."
When she was still a toddler, her family moved to New Orleans, where her mother cleaned houses and her father worked at a gas station. As a kindergartner, Ruby scored high on a battery of tests and was given the option to integrate an all-white school. Lucille supported the idea; Abon did not. "Both of them were sharecroppers in Mississippi -- that's how they were raised," says Hall. "So they couldn't go to school when they wanted to, because they had to get the crops out." As a result, she says, school was very important to her mother. And a chance to attend Frantz sounded good. "She saw it as a chance at a better education -- something she wanted so badly herself," says Hall.
No one knew what lay ahead. The first day, a small crowd yelled awful things at Ruby and her mother. By the next day, the crowd swelled to about 1,000 hostile people, a scene written about by John Steinbeck in his book Travels With Charley: "The big marshals stood her on the curb and a jangle of jeering shrieks went up from behind the barricades. The little girl did not look at the howling crowd but from the side the whites of her eyes showed like those of a frightened fawn. Š"
Hall says that through this she learned that, as Martin Luther King Jr. had said, people should not be judged "by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."
"You've got to remember," she says, "even though this mob of white people was out there every day, threatening to kill me, every day there also was a white woman there to greet me. Her name was Barbara Henry. She was my teacher." For Hall's entire first-grade year, she was a class of one, taught by Henry, a young teacher from Boston. "Here was this woman who looked exactly like the mob outside, but she wasn't like them," says Hall.
All but a handful of white parents had pulled their children out of Frantz. Other teachers had quit their jobs rather than teach a black student. As a result, the two of them had something in common, says Hall. "Not only was I ostracized, she was as well."
Neither of them missed a day of school that year. "She made school fun," says Hall. "But I found myself looking for the other kids all day." It wasn't until late in the year that Hall discovered that the school held a few other kids -- white kids who, along with their parents, had returned to the school despite the jeering crowds out front. The other children, however, were in classrooms together, while Ruby was kept by herself.
Meanwhile at home, Ruby's integration of Frantz had brought on some tough times. The white owners of the neighborhood grocery store wouldn't allow the Bridges family to shop there any longer. Her parents received death threats. Even her grandparents back in Mississippi were forced to move from the land they'd sharecropped for 25 years.
Then Abon Bridges was let go from the gas station because of his daughter, and he couldn't look for another job -- it was considered too dangerous. But the community pitched in. "My mother had friends that would come over and dress me for school," Hall explains. "We lived close to where the longshoremen got off the boats; they would come to our house and drop off money after my father lost his job."
The family only lived about five blocks from Frantz. And so, every day before school, their neighbors would gather out front until Ruby came outside and got into the federal marshals' car. Then they would walk behind the car all the way to the school.
The following year, Henry left New Orleans. Hall was taught by a teacher who had refused to teach her the year before. But Henry's speech inflections stayed with Hall -- they still do. (For instance, when she pronounces "again," it rhymes with pane.)
Hall didn't sound like a New Orleans child. Instead, she sounded like the woman who'd taught her to read -- Barbara Henry. "She left me with a Boston accent," says Hall. "The next year, the teacher would say to me, 'Take a seat, that's not how you pronounce that word.'"
That year was difficult for other reasons. "By the time I got into the second year, all the attention was gone, the federal marshals were gone, the support was gone," says Hall. "For awhile, it was almost like I had dreamed some of it."
Child psychiatrist Robert Coles had also worked with her during that first year. He and his wife would keep visiting for the next few years, but his visits too began to taper off as he began work on his now-famous Children of Crisis books, in which he writes extensively about Ruby Bridges.
Abon and Lucille Bridges eventually separated. Ruby, the oldest of eight children, moved with her mother and her siblings to the Florida housing project. Among the possessions they moved to the project were boxes of toys and clothes sent from across the country and a personal Christmas card from former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. But everyone was silent about what had spurred all of that attention -- Ruby's integration of Frantz.
"Nobody talked about it," says Hall. "We never even discussed it in our home."
DURING SUBSEQUENT YEARS, Ruby Bridges faded from the public eye.
"Mom was on her own, working. She had eight kids, but that was life for everyone in the Florida housing project," says Hall, who found herself more bothered by not having her father in the house.
Ruby spoke with her dad every day, but it wasn't the same. "My father was a very compassionate person, someone I could talk to, confide in," says Hall. "I think probably I got my strength from my mother, but my father was someone who really, really believed in me."
Hall started dreaming about becoming a flight attendant. "At that point, I really wanted to get out of the housing project. I wanted to get out of the city. I just wanted to see what the rest of the world was like. I felt really depressed and I wanted to do something different," she says.
She knew that in order to fulfill her dream, she needed to continue her schooling. Even when she became pregnant as a teenager, she continued to attend Nicholls High School (now Frederick Douglass), from which she graduated. She then left for business school in Kansas City and ended up becoming a travel agent, which allowed her to rack up frequent flyer miles and see the world outside of New Orleans.
She married and settled down in New Orleans with her husband to raise their four sons. But she still felt like she wanted to have some involvement in schools, and so she became a parent liaison at a magnet school, James Lewis Extension. That wasn't enough. "At some point in our life, we start to take stock," Hall explains. "I had come to that point."
Things became clearer to her in the early 1990s, when her family was struck by tragedy. Her youngest brother was murdered in the Florida project, leaving four young daughters who ended up at Hall's house for about six months. "When I took my nieces into my home, they were attending the same school I had integrated," says Hall. "Somehow fate had taken me back to that school." She began to volunteer at Frantz.
Hall also thought back to the days when her own community had given so much support to her and her family. She had not been following that example. "I had been so consumed with what was going on under my roof that I wasn't paying attention to what was going on around me -- not even in my immediate family," she says.
She could also relate to how the girls were feeling. They were afraid, because their father had been murdered right where they usually played. And when they stepped into Hall's house, what caught their eyes was the wallpaper on the walls. "That reminded me of how I had not been exposed at that point in my life, when I was their age," Hall says. At the time, going trick or treating in white neighborhoods was an exotic experience. "As they opened the doors, I remember looking into their houses and thinking, 'Oh my God, look at this,'" she says.
In 1995, Hall was volunteering at Frantz, trying to figure out how to work with more children. That's when Robert Coles published The Story of Ruby Bridges, a children's book about her. "That book was the first book of its kind, to take a subject like racism and try to explain it to a child," she says.
The book became a bestseller, and Coles had stipulated that its royalties should go to a new nonprofit organization, the Ruby Bridges Foundation. Coles' book also put Hall in the spotlight again. "Everyone knew the Norman Rockwell painting," says Hall. "But no one knew who that little girl was until the book came out." She started a book tour and, 35 years after she integrated Frantz, she reunited with her former teacher, Barbara Henry, on The Oprah Winfrey Show. In 1999, Hall published Through My Eyes, her own account of her days at Frantz. It won numerous literary prizes, including the Carter G. Woodson book award from the National Council for the Social Studies.
Even Hall's own children -- always a parent's toughest critics -- were impressed when their mother was honored by the New York Knicks and they were given courtside seats. "I think, at that point, they saw me in a different light," says Hall.
"I BELIEVE THAT KIDS RELATE TO the loneliness I talk about in my story -- they feel drawn to me," says Hall. On several occasions, she says, kids have come up to her and just poured their hearts out.
There are, for instance, the children who have been abused, the little girl who said, "I had to be brave just like you. I had to be brave to call 911 on my dad when he was beating my mom."
At first, the Ruby Bridges Foundation provided some cultural and arts classes at Frantz. Then it became clear that the foundation was getting a far better reception in other cities. "I realized that, if I was going to do something about the sacrifices my parents had made, I had to go outside New Orleans, because no one here really embraced the story," Hall says.
In Los Angeles, television producer Norman Lear and Castlerock Entertainment gave the foundation some seed money. With funding from Hewitt, it expanded into Chicago. The centerpiece of the foundation is the program Ruby's Bridges, which links together children of different backgrounds. Most often, a heavily minority inner-city school is linked with a white suburban school. Students become penpals, go on field trips, and work on community-service projects together. Promotional materials for the program explain that the Ruby Bridges Foundation strives "to change society, through the education and inspiration of children" and that "racism is a grown-up disease and we must stop using our children to spread it."
The plan now is to expand to a new city every year. "What I would want to do is circle back around and put it into the Frantz school," Hall says.
Already, they've worked to get Frantz named a national historic landmark. But the building has fallen into disrepair and the student body is once again segregated. "That school is in the inner city now, with a few hundred kids, and they're all black," says Hall.
Sometimes people see that and ask her, "Was it worth it?" It was, she says, because she believes in diversity and that's what her first-grade ordeal was all about.
But Hall hasn't given up on her former school. She still volunteers there when she can, and every Nov. 14, on the day she first walked through Frantz's doors, she hosts a special event there. This year, Hall may do something with Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks. She's visited the Richmond, Va., school where Brooks' mother teaches, and they have similar hopes for the children of New Orleans.
These days, when Hall dreams, she dreams of Frantz being built into a first-class flagship school that can attract a diverse student body. "Then the school will be integrated a second time around," she says.