*Norman Rockwell’s iconic painting of 6-year-old Ruby Bridges being escorted to school by federal marshals is well known, but many of the personal details surrounding her first year at New Orleans’ all-white William Frantz Elementary School have been lost to history.
Professor and historian Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. made it his mission to fill in these important pages of the black American experience through his ambitious new PBS event, “The African Americans: Many Rivers To Cross,” due this fall.
Bridges appears in the six-hour series as the country’s first African American to attend an all-white elementary school in the South – six years after the 1954 United States Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education declared that state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students were unconstitutional.
“I thought that I was going to college that day,” Bridges told journalists last week at the Television Critics Association press tour in Beverly Hills. She said her mother simply told her, “Ruby, you are going to go to a new school today, and you’d better behave.”
Ruby added: “And I have to say that that’s what I was really focusing on, was behaving.”
Ruby’s parents didn’t tell her that they had answered a call from the NAACP to participate in the integration of the New Orleans School System. In the spring of 1960, a test was given to black children to determine whether or not they could attend the white schools. Ruby was one of only six who passed, but no one explained to her exactly what she had passed, so she assumed it was an entry exam for college — and that the “new school” her mother spoke of was a university.
“And so I wasn’t afraid. I felt like this is what happens when a six-year-old girl is so smart she’s now about to go to college, and that’s why the media was there out in front and the police officers,” recalled Bridges. “So I think, in my own mind, what most six year old kids do, they make up their own world to live in. I wasn’t afraid, but it was the innocence of a child that protected me.”
It wasn’t long before the innocence began falling away. Although Bridges had to endure angry white mobs outside of the school during her first year at William Frantz, she recalls only one time when she felt “really afraid.” Listen below.
Bridges says she wasn’t even aware of Rockwell’s painting “The Problem We All Live With” until she was in her late teens – more than a decade after it was published as a centerfold in the January 14, 1964 issue of Look magazine.
“I was maybe 17, 18 years old when I first saw it,” she said. “I was doing an interview with a reporter who opened up the book and said, ‘Have you seen this?’ And I said, ‘No.’ And he said, ‘You know that it’s you.’ And I have to say that I was totally blown away.”
Below, Bridges explains why it took so long for her to become aware of her depiction in Rockwell’s painting.
“The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross with Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” premieres Oct. 22 on PBS.
Below, Ruby visited the White House to see how the painting commemorating her personal and historic milestone looks hanging on the wall outside of the Oval Office. The portrait was on display throughout the summer of 2011, which marked the 50 year anniversary of Ruby’s historic walk into William Frantz.