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First black pupil drawn up in desegregation looks back

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

When Ruby Bridges started elementary school in New Orleans nearly 58 years ago, her first day was unlike most other 6-year-olds ever encounter. 

FILE - U.S. Deputy Marshals escort 6-year-old Ruby Bridges from William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, in this November 1960, file photo. On Friday, Nov. 14, 2014, 54 years later to the day when she first walked up the steps to the school, Bridges is scheduled to commemorate the event with the unveiling of a statue in her likeness on the campus.

She was the first African-American student to attend what had been an all-white elementary school there, a feat that led to an escort by federal marshals and a mob decrying the girl’s presence.

“There were so many people lined up, and they were screaming and shouting, waving their hands, throwing things, and there were policeman everywhere,” Bridges recalled.

(Crop of original painting)  Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), The Problem We All Live With, 1963.  Oil on canvas, 36" x 58".  Illustration for Look, January 14, 1964. Ruby Bridges is the young girl depicted in this famous painting by Norman Rockwell.

The author and activist’s harrowing experience was later depicted in “The Problem We All Live With,” an painting by iconic artist Norman Rockwell.

FILE - Ruby Bridges attends the 2017 Glamour Women of the Year Awards.

She recalled that era and its lingering impact Thursday evening during an event at The Henry Ford in Dearborn.

“An Evening With Ruby Bridges” was part of "Enduring Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms," the exhibit that opened at the museum last month and runs through January. It is considered the first comprehensive traveling display devoted to Rockwell’s representations of the Four Freedoms touted by President Franklin Roosevelt: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear.

The demonstration was all about detailing watershed moments, said Patricia Mooradian, the museum’s president and CEO. 

“It’s our mission to bring ... the people and stories that represent pivotal points in our nation’s history that have changed the course of our lives forever,” she told more than 700 guests gathered in the museum.

For more than an hour, Bridges recounted the impact of transforming William Frantz Elementary School after a federal court ordered Louisiana to desegregate.

She was among only six black students, all girls, who passed an entrance exam to attend a pair of schools. But two others chose not to attend the same building, so the daughter of Southern sharecroppers went alone.

Ruby Bridges speaks at The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan on Thursday, November 1, 2018.

Her enrollment was so controversial, an angry crowd gathered outside and chanted “two, four, six, eight— we don’t want to integrate,” Bridges told the audience. At another point, she spotted someone holding a black doll in a coffin.

In the days after, hundreds of parents pulled their children from the school, leaving empty classrooms, Bridges recalled. 

“It was so quiet, you could hear a pin drop,” she said.

Bridges credited her innocence with helping — and teacher Barbara Henry.

“I knew if I just got past the mob and inside the classroom, I knew I was going to have a good day, and I knew I was going to learn something new everyday,” Bridges said.

Throughout her talk, the mother of four, who founded the Ruby Bridges Foundation, urged the audience, which included many youths and families, to fight back against discrimination.

“The reason why we are still talking about this 50, 60 years later is because somebody has passed it on,” she said.

The remarks encouraged Lillian Duncan, who attended with her daughter and two grandchildren. The Pontiac resident routinely reminds her young relatives about the civil rights movement and seeks opportunities to illustrate its impact.

“Ruby went through something I just couldn’t believe,” she said. “I hate that we teach our kids to hate. If we come together with love, we can get to know each other.”