BENICIA BLACK LIVES MATTER
“Benicia Schools joined thousands of other schools around the country to commemorate and celebrate Ruby Bridges, who was one of the first African American children to attend an all white school in the segregated South.”
November 22, 2022
By Sheri Leigh, a member of Benicia Black Lives Matter
Last week, several of the Benicia Schools joined thousands of other schools around the country to commemorate and celebrate Ruby Bridges, who was one of the first African American children to attend an all white school in the segregated South. This was the second year that any of our schools participated in this important event. Last year, Benicia Black Lives Matters (BBLM) partnered with the PTA and the administration at Robert Semple Elementary School to hold the first march and celebration in Benicia to honor the young American heroine and her family for the brave decision to risk Ruby’s personal safety and comfort to help create a more equitable future for all American children. Every student at Robert Semple was present for readings of Ruby Bridges books and Ms. Bridges’ letter to students. The children were enrapt while listening to the readings and asked in depth questions about Ruby’s life. The event at Robert Semple was so moving and powerful that BBLM worked with the City and School District to make this an annual, City-wide event.
Ruby Bridges was born in 1954 during the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, shortly after , Brown v. The Board of Education was enacted. The famous Supreme Court ruling declared that separate public schools for white children, from which children of color were banned, was unconstitutional. The segregated schools had six years to integrate. Many of the southern states were extremely resistant, waiting until the end of the transition period or until they were forced into compliance by the US government.
In 1960, young Ruby was living in New Orleans, Louisiana, which was one of the last southern areas to enforce the federal mandate of integrated schools. As Ruby prepared to enter the first grade, her parents responded to a request from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and volunteered her to participate in the integration of the New Orleans schools. With the intent of continuing to keep Black children out, the Orleans Parish School Board opted to administer a rigorous entrance exam at their all-white schools. Ruby was one of six Black children who passed the challenging admissions test. Two of the other five children decided not to attend the soon to be integrated schools. Three of the others were transferred to McDonogh Elementary, and Ruby was sent alone to William Frantz Elementary.
On Ruby’s first day of school, the white community and nearly all of the white families protested by pulling out their children from that school and/or by gathering at the school entrance to shout at and threaten the small girl and her escorts. It was reported that Ruby conducted herself with dignity and stoicism. She did not cringe or cry, but simply ignored the threats as she bravely walked into the building. All but one teacher protested by refusing to teach. Although most of the children and teachers eventually came back, Ruby was taught in class by herself for the first year by Barbara Henry, a teacher from Boston.
The impacts of her bravery were harsh on Ruby and her family. Her father was dismissed from his job. Stores refused to sell goods to the family. Her grandparents in Mississippi lost their land. Her parents, under extreme stress, eventually divorced. But there was support as well. One family in the community donated clothing and supplies to Ruby to help aid her success. A local psychiatrist volunteered his time to provide Ruby with mental health support, and she remained strong and mentally sound despite the stress.
Today, Ruby Bridges (now Ruby Bridges Hall) still lives in New Orleans with her husband and sons. She is an activist for tolerance and equity and the chair of the Ruby Bridges Foundation, which she formed in 1999 to promote “the values of tolerance, respect, and appreciation of all differences.” Describing the mission of the group, she says, “racism is a grown-up disease and we must stop using our children to spread it.”
On Monday, November 14, with the help and support of members from BBLM and the community, the Benicia City Schools organized walks, pledges, displays and in-school activities to commemorate the tremendous efforts that were made by Ruby Bridges and others to provide a safe, integrated and equitable education for all children in this country. Robert Semple, Joe Henderson and several of our other schools participated with great enthusiasm. Although some of our schools sadly minimized the activities or did not participate at all, this is a tremendous step Benicia Schools have made towards the recognition and celebration of the history of all our families.
If you would like more information about Ruby Bridges Day or the efforts of BBLM, please contact us through www.benicia blacklivesmatter.weebly.com