Benicia marches for Ruby Bridges

Students from Robert Semple Elementary School walk from Francesca Terrace Park in support of Ruby Bridges during Ruby Bridges Walk to School Day in California on Tuesday in Benicia. | Chris Riley / Times-Herald.

School system honors Ruby Bridges, the first African American child to attend whites-only school in 1960

Vallejo Times-Herald, by Thomas Gase, November 14, 2023

In 1960 Ruby Bridges became the first African-American child to attend formerly Whites-only William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana during the New Orleans school desegregation crisis. Today — 63 years later — students in Benicia are making sure nobody forgets.

Students in the Benicia High School Unified School District took part in a day to raise awareness for Bridges after learning about the civil rights activist in school during this year. For students at Robert Semple Elementary School, that meant walking from Francesca Park to the school while carrying signs and wearing T-shirts supporting Bridges.

The third annual event has grown in size every year, thanks to organizers like Kashanna Harmon-Lee, Laura Cohen, Krista Heredia and Rozalind Sinnamon.

“This is something good for Benicia and I’m really proud of the support of what everyone shown,” Harmon-Lee said. “The kids learn about Bridges’ life and these are kids that maybe didn’t know anything about Bridges previously. Each year the parents become more involved. So I’m very proud and very humble about the community effort.”

In early 1960, Bridges was one of six Black children in New Orleans to pass the test that determined whether they could go to the all-White William Frantz Elementary School. While two of the six decided to stay at their old school, Bridges went to Frantz by herself, and three other children (Gail Etienne, Leona Tate and Tessie Prevost) were transferred to the all-White McDonogh No. 19 Elementary School.

U.S. Marshals escorted Bridges to and from school. As soon as Bridges entered the school, White parents pulled their own children out, and most teachers refused to teach while a Black child was enrolled. Only one person agreed to teach Bridges — Barbara Henry, from Boston.

For over a year Henry taught her alone, “as if she were teaching a whole class.”

Students walking on Tuesday morning — along with teachers and family members — wore swag and T-shirts provided by UA Local 342. In total there were approximately 450 purple T-shirts made showing support for Bridges.

“Rich (Patten) reached out to the school and it’s been honor and privilege funding this effort,” UA Local 342 business agent Dave Herwat said. “It’s amazing to be more than just a labor union in this cause and to be an actual prescience in the community. If there is an opportunity to spread the wealth, then this is certainly the way to do it.”

Student supervision aid, Chelsea Bearce, walks with students during Ruby Bridges Walk to School Day in California on Tuesday in Benicia. | Chris Riley / Times-Herald.

One of the students wearing the swag was fourth-grader Gianna Patten, who also made a sign showing support for Bridges.

“I knew about her before this event but I like her (Bridges) because she never gave up,” Gianna said. “Even when people were yelling at her she never gave up.”

Sinnamon was also thrilled to be part of the third annual event.

“This is something I got behind three years ago and it’s grown a lot ever since,” Sinnamon said. “It celebrates diversity, it a teaching lesson to kids and adults and there is just so much forgotten and overlooked in history that we have to remember. We have to remember that it’s, ‘we the people and we still have power.’”

Benicia City Councilmember Kari Birdseye was happy to be involved with the event.

“I’m so proud of the parents that have been involved and this all started on the shoulders of a few people and it has evolved into something much bigger,” Birdseye said. “This is not just a walk. There is so much education around this. It promotes freedom, love and it is a great thing for the country and community.”

Robert Semple Principal Christina Moore said she let her teachers decide the role of how Bridges would be educated in classrooms.

“The pride I have is unmeasurable. I cannot express the gratitude and honor for being apart of something so meaningful in our community that was brought along by our parent group,” Moore said. “I love the beautiful posters, the writings about Ruby Bridges, the solidarity with all of us wearing all the shirts together. It’s all beautiful.”