Lucille Bridges passed away this week, succumbing to cancer at the age of 86. However, the path that she and her courageous family helped build shined brightly in the days which surrounded her final moments.
Lucille was born to sharecropper parents in a time when black children rarely finished elementary school. She made it to the eighth grade before leaving the classroom to help in the fields. As a teenager she would meet and then marry Abon Bridges. In 1954, at the age of 20 and the same year of the historic “Brown Vs. Board of Education” court case declaring school segregation illegal, she gave birth to her first daughter, Ruby.
Two years later, the young family moved to New Orleans. Abon worked as a gas station attendant during the day, Lucille worked various jobs at night so the two could care for Ruby and the four siblings who would follow.
Ruby attended an all black school for Kindergarten. At the end of the year, the N.A.A.C.P. announced it was looking for volunteers to attempt to integrate the local elementary schools. The school district gave an aptitude and psychological test to determine which kids were most likely to have success in the all white school. Ruby took it, and was one of only five children to pass.
Abon, worried about the safety of his little girl, did not want Ruby to be the first to go to William Frantz elementary. However, after much discussion and debate with Lucille, they decided they would do it. Lucille would later explain that it wasn’t just about Ruby, it was about creating opportunities for all black children to have a better life.
On November 14, 1960, when Lucille and Ruby arrived at the school, they were met by hundreds of angry protesters from near and far. They chanted “two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate.” They threw tomatoes and eggs at Lucille and Ruby. Ruby wasn’t sure what was going on, she thought it might be Mardi Gras or some kind of party.
Several women hoisted a coffin in the air towards six year old Ruby. Inside the coffin was a black child.
Outside the school, Ruby and Lucille were met by four federal marshals assigned to protect them. They were also stopped by two local police officers, who told them they could not go further. Lucille said to them “step aside, the President of the United States says we can.”
Hundreds of parents rushed to pull their children out of the school. When they walked through the front door, Barbara Henry was there to greet them. She was the only teacher in the school who did not refuse to teach Ruby. All of the other white kids were pulled from the class by their parents. For a full year, Ms. Henry had one student in her classroom: Ruby Bridges.
Lucille had to pack a lunch for Ruby every day, because so many adults in the area had threatened to poison her. Abon and Lucille were both fired from their jobs. In Mississippi, Lucille’s parents were kicked off the land they had been sharecroppers on for decades. No grocery store within thirty miles would sell the Bridges family groceries.
Ruby never missed a single day of school that year. She never cried, she never whimpered.
Ruby went to graduate from high school, become a travel agent, marry and have four kids herself. She created the Ruby Bridges Foundation, and continues to travel the country telling her story and fighting for civil rights.
Years later, four of her nieces would go to the same elementary school, without significant incident.
Abon Bridges passed away in 1978. Lucille continued to live in New Orleans until she was forced to evacuate due to Hurricane Katrina. She relocated to Houston, where she spent her final years. She did get to see the famous Norman Rockwell painting about that fateful day 60 years ago titled, “The Problem We Live With.”
It is most important to note two major events that happened the same week Lucille Bridges died. Three days earlier, Kamala Harris became the first Vice-President elect of color and the first female Vice-President Elect in our nation’s history. Young women all over the country and world watched with wide eyes as they saw new possibilities and opportunities that lay within their own futures. Yesterday, the Florida Marlins named Kim Ng as the first female general manager in North American Sports history.
Neither of monumental steps forward would have been possible without the courage of Ruby, Lucille, and Abon Bridges.
When women and people of color are allowed to contribute, our whole team and world get stronger. Thank God for the people who did the unimaginably difficult things to create opportunities for them. May their spirit live on, and may we all stand up for those who need us in the future.
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