On a wall in the Normal Rockwell Museum hangs a painting of a little girl, African American, in a white dress and white pigtails walking with, in her left hand, her school books.
Photo credit: Norman Rockwell, Smithsonian
The Problem We All Live With depicts an actual walk that took place on the 14th of November 1960 in New Orleans.
The girl in the painting was six and her name was Ruby Bridges. Ruby was on her way to William Frantz Elementary school – with her mother and four federal marshals.
In spite of that escort, the little girl could not reach the classroom. That first day of First Grade she spent in the principal’s office while riots raged outside the window. The protesters were not raggedly dressed hooligans, but white, well-dressed mothers and fathers of the school’s students, loudly hurling insults.
There was nothing illegal about her walk; Brown v. Board of Education had ruled six years before that separate public schools for black and white students were unconstitutional. The New Orleans School Board and city’s white residents had, however, fought hard to delay the law’s implementation, insisting on a difficult test to determine the “eligibility” of prospective integrators. Ruby had taken their test and been one of only four students who passed. New Orleans then desegregated just two schools; three students went to one, Ruby to the other.
That day, she learned her first lesson of First Grade: racism. She was not welcome. Her skin was of a different color and for some reason, the wrong one.
On Day Two, however, she walked to school again, this time into an empty classroom; no one would join her, except a young white teacher: Mrs. Barbara Henry.
For an entire year, Mrs. Henry and Ruby sat at two desks side by side. Ruby learned to read, sing, do jumping jacks. At recess, they played games in the classroom; it was not safe outside. Side by side, they had their lunch, received threats, and faced insults every day. Yet Mrs. Henry reflects happily on those days:
“We created our own oasis of love and learning.”
Photo credit: The National Parks Service
The price of that brave walk was heavy. The painting does not quite show it;
Ruby suffered from serious trauma, haunted by nightmares and the fear of poisoning. Her father and grandparents were fired from their jobs, the family banned from the grocery store. Her mother, who walked with her to school, was villainized for “doing this” to her daughter.
But there were others who bore that weight with the Bridges and walked the walk alongside them: Mrs. Henry; the neighbors who brought home-cooked meals to the house; the friend who offered employment; the parents who sent their children back to school; the children who talked to Ruby.
The Normal Rockwell painting only shows one little girl and four men, but truly, that walk to school was the march of a nation toward a different set of values:
“I learned a very valuable lesson, and it is that we should not ever look up at a person or judge them by the color of their skin, that’s the lesson I have learned in first grade.”
– Ruby Bridges
By the Second Grade, more children had returned, and Ruby Bridges had classmates. More and more schools were desegregated, more public spaces, communities. By 1963, Martin Luther King was saying “I have a dream” in front of hundreds of thousands in Washington DC, And by 2008, an African American man was moving into the White House.
“Racism is a grown-up disease and we must stop using our children to spread it.”
It took a child in a white dress and pigtails to teach a country that lesson, walking to school with her books in her left hand on a 1960 November day.