At only 6 years old, Ruby Bridges was the first person of Afro-American descent who went to a school that, until that moment, only allowed white boys and girls the possibility to study there.
This came to pass in Louisiana, owing to a decision by the US Supreme Court that stated that the separation of children due to ethnicity amounted to inequality of opportunity. Segregation between people based on skin colour did not only affect educational institutions but was practically an unbreakable rule in all spheres of life. People of African descent were denied access to public transport, bars, and restaurants, to the point they had to use different toilets among other restrictions.
During the time of Reconstruction (between 1865 and 1877) the United States, amongst other initiatives, offered the protection of civil rights for all citizens who had been slaves until then and so took a decisive step towards the end of slavery and the start of equal opportunities. Nevertheless, this situation created enormous discontent among more conservative groups who held power in the southern states and attempted to perpetuate discrimination through every resource at their disposal.
This was how the Jim Crow laws that defended racial segregation came to pass in all public spaces under the pretext, ‘separate but equal’. These laws applied to all ethnic groups that were considered ‘not white’.
Ruby Bridges, A Step Forward
Ruby Nell Bridges Hall was born on the 8th of September 1954 in Mississippi. Her mother and father were part of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, which helped her, in 1960, to integrate into the school system.
In order for boys and girls of African descent to apply to these schools, they needed to pass a strict entry exam. The year in which Ruby Bridges successfully applied, six other non-white children were approved, and yet Ruby was the only one who decided to go to school.
On her first day of classes, Ruby Bridges was escorted by federal agents from her house to the school. She was just a six-year-old girl, and they were met by a crowd of people protesting against her going to the same school as other children. Levels of racism were so high among the local population that Ruby ended up studying for a year alone.
Although the outlook would seem discouraging for many artists, there were also a few people who had the opportunity to make a difference. One of these was the teacher who was by her side throughout this process, Barbara Henry, who didn’t only grow in her role as an educator but was Ruby’s company in a difficult time when she was excluded from friendships with classmates her age.
Mistreatment started at school and spread to all public areas where the Bridges family went; Ruby’s father was fired from the service station where he worked, her mother was denied her wages at the warehouses, and was refused service when she bought groceries. Regardless, no one in the Bridges family took a step backward on their decision; their daughter would make history and would break the ice to make a step toward a school system with equal opportunities for everyone.
Ruby is, without doubt, one of the many women that have marked the history of the world through the change of the status quo. Following her early defiance against racism, she became an activist, a role she continues to play to this day.
Although her experience may now seem like an old anecdote, racism persists in all parts of the world to the extent of affecting the smallest motions that we make, even if we believe that’s not the case.
It is difficult to detect the behaviours that we could be replicating and which could wound or oppress those of other races but, as always, it is important to try to listen to the voices that form part of this collective. It’s important to try to democratise those spaces that were historically reserved for whites and to have patience with ourselves in the unending process of deconstruction to help create equal rights and opportunities for all.
TR: David Crowe