William T. Frantz Elementary, Ruby Bridges, and the Desegregation of Schools

Melissa Woelflein

November 14th, 1960 at a time when racial tensions were arguably at an all-time-high, 6-year-old Ruby Bridges bravely walked up the steps of William T. Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, LA. At that moment, Ruby became the first Black student to desegregate the all-white school.

It took years after the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision mandated desegregation of public schools, and years of failed attempts in the deep south to keep schools segregated, that Black students in New Orleans were given a chance to attend white schools. Ruby’s parents responded to a request by the NAACP to participate in the integration of schools which included testing to determine if Black children were academically competitive enough to attend white schools. Of the six students in New Orleans who passed, Ruby was the only one assigned to William T. Frantz Elementary. In her interview with NPR, Ruby said that at the time, she had no idea the impact of what was happening that day. “I had already attended an all-Black school for kindergarten and thought I knew enough about school to sort of understand that I was merely going to a new school. I had no idea that it was going to be a white school. It wasn't something that my parents explained to me. As a matter of fact, the only thing they said is, ‘Ruby, you're going to go to the school today and you better behave.’ I have to say that that's what I was concentrating on, right? Not behaving, being on my best behavior.”

Ruby and her mother, escorted by U.S. Marshals, entered the school that morning to the visuals and sounds of viscous screaming of hatred from a mob of parents and community members standing outside the building boycotting her attendance. Ruby spent that first day sitting in the principal’s office while hundreds of parents filed into the school to pull their children from classrooms. Ruby recalled coming back the next day to an empty school where she was taught alone by her teacher, Mrs. Henry, who was white. A few white parents crossed the picket lines and brought their children to school, but they were kept separate for most of the year, until Mrs. Henry threatened to report the principal to the superintendent for not following the recent law changes regarding segregation. Prior to that, Ruby would eat lunch and play with Mrs. Henry, who was the only teacher willing to take on Ruby as a student.

By the end of that first year, Ruby was allowed to be with the three remaining children, and it was then that she realized that all of the shouting outside the school was about her skin color. “I have to say that that was the day that I realized that everything was about me and the color of my skin, because a little boy said, "I can't play with you. My mom said not to play with you."

That following year, Ruby was joined by a handful of other Black students, and some white students returned as well. School integration was also met with a large number of white middle class families moving to the suburbs. Ruby’s contribution to racial equality and public schools was substantial, even in those early years. PBS notes that “ten years after Bridges and three other girls became the first Black children to attend New Orleans public school, more than 70 percent of the students in the public school system were Black.”

Today, Ruby Bridges continues her work as a civil rights activist, speaking to students across the country about racial equality and founded The Ruby Bridges Foundation aimed to promote racial tolerance and anti-bullying. Most elementary school students today cannot fathom that there was a time when Black and white students were kept separate, thanks in large part to Ruby and her family’s courage that physically warm, but intensely cold November day in 1960.


All photos credited to: Rare Historical Photos

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