Surprise and awe. That’s how a new elementary school’s students greeted a renowned online guest on their first day. “I’m Ruby Bridges,” the namesake of the Northshore district school said during last week’s virtual assembly.
“I just wanted to pop in and answer your questions in person,” said Bridges, who at age 6 became a civil rights trailblazer.
In November 1960, escorted by four federal marshals past an angry mob, Ruby Nell Bridges became the first African-American student enrolled in what had been an all-white New Orleans school. Her walk into William Frantz Elementary was a brave step in ending racial segregation in the South’s public schools.
Bridges, who on Tuesday turned 66, expressed excitement about the school named in her honor during the Sept. 2 online assembly. She alluded to her childhood struggle and today’s pandemic. “My first day was really different and I know that your first day is different than what you guys are accustomed to,” said Bridges, who lives in Louisiana. “At the end of my year, I loved my school.”
Ruby Bridges Elementary, near Woodinville at 20510 49th Dr. SE — which is part of Snohomish County — is a 76,000-square-foot, 34-classroom school for kindergarten through fifth-grade students. Designed by Dykeman Architects, it’s one of two schools in the nation named for Bridges, said Northshore district spokeswoman Lisa Youngblood Hall. The other is Ruby Bridges Elementary in Alameda, California.
Students at the Northshore school — with River Otters as their mascot — come from areas previously served by Canyon Creek, Fernwood and Kokanee elementary schools.
Principal Cathi Davis said about 450 students “zoomed in” to the first-day assembly, with only 10 missing it. “They were surprised,” said Davis. Two girls, one who’d done a research project about Bridges, had the chance to chat with her during the assembly.
Nevaeh Liburd, a fourth-grader at the new school, asked Bridges, “What advice would you tell girls like me of color living in the world today?”
Bridges told Nevaeh that kids can set an example for adults. “We can show them how we need to behave, don’t you think?” said Bridges. When 10-year-old Nevaeh answered “Yeah,” Bridges agreed with a resounding “absolutely.”
Nevaeh, whose mother Kalin Liburd is a second-grade teacher at Ruby Bridges Elementary, said later she was “very shocked” to see and get to talk with the school’s namesake. “I really look up to her,” the fourth-grader said. “She gave me confidence to make a difference in the world.”
Bridges wasn’t the first student to break down racial barriers in this country.
In a unanimous 1954 decision, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools violated the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Three years later, nine teens escorted by federal troops entered the formerly all-white Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas.
Yet by 1960, states in the South still resisted integration. It took a federal court order for Louisiana to desegregate, plus Ruby and other children passing an entrance exam — an exam meant to keep them out — to open doors in New Orleans public schools.
Artist Norman Rockwell increased the nation’s focus on Ruby’s ordeal with his now-famous painting “The Problem We All Live With.” A cover illustration for the Jan. 14, 1964, issue of Look magazine, it shows a little Black girl in a white dress. Carrying school books, she is surrounded by federal marshals as she walks past a wall inscribed with a racial slur.
State Rep. John Lovick shared painful memories of attending a segregated school in an opinion piece published June 17 in The Daily Herald. Lovick is a former Snohomish County executive and former county sheriff who also served as a State Patrol trooper. He wrote the article in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Lovick, 69, grew up in Natchitoches, Louisiana. He recalled sitting in school and seeing boxes of books being wheeled in: “The oldest, stained, pages-missing, hand-me-down books charitably ‘donated’ by the white school across town,” Lovick wrote. The boxes, with racial slurs on them, were labeled “NEGRO,” he wrote. “That kind of thing stays with a 7-year-old kid.”
Kalin Liburd plans to bring Bridges’ legacy into her second-grade classroom. “They’re very engaged with her story,” she said of students. As an author, Bridges has told her story in “Ruby Bridges Goes to School,” “Through My Eyes” and the soon-to-be-released “This is Your Time.”
Along with the virtual assembly, Bridges took part in an online meeting with the new school’s staff — and mentioned her teacher from that tumultuous first year.
In a 2015 article on the National Women’s History Museum website, Debra Michals wrote of what teacher Barbara Henry and little Ruby endured. “Barbara Henry, a white Boston native, was the only teacher willing to accept Ruby, and all year she was a class of one,” Michals wrote.
“Her teacher, Miss Barbara Henry, if she could endure that, we can do distance learning,” Liburd said.
In interviews, Bridges has recalled that one woman in the daily mobs that greeted her carried a Black baby doll in a coffin. Liburd called Bridges “a strong woman of color to be a hero to our kids.”
Once the risk of coronavirus has passed, Principal Davis said her school would love to host Bridges for a real visit. “We’re hoping that her legacy lives in the school,” she said.
Already, students are writing her letters, the principal said. There are hopes for a sister-school relationship with the other Ruby Bridges Elementary. And plans call for a hallway display in the new school showing “a historical perspective of Bridges’ life and impact,” Davis said.
The Northshore School Board’s naming policy was followed in picking the name, Davis said. It included a naming committee, with opportunities for the community and students to be involved. One goal was to choose “someone who made an impact on the world as a child,” Davis said.
In her surprise talk, Bridges shared her wish for this year’s students — and those in generations to come.
“I want you to set an example, because that’s what my life is about,” Bridges said.
Julie Muhlstein: firstname.lastname@example.org.