On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Kojo For Kids welcomes Ruby Bridges to the show on Monday, February 15 at 12:30. Listen live by streaming the show on this page or by tuning in to 88.5 FM in the Washington, D.C. region. Kids can call in with questions at 800-433-8850.
Ruby Bridges was born in 1954, the year the Supreme Court ruled against segregation in public schools. Six years later, walking past hostile white crowds and escorted by federal marshals, she became the first Black child to enter New Orlean’s William Frantz Elementary School.
One of the youngest heroes of the civil rights era, Ruby Bridges joins us to talk about what it was like to play such an important role in history at such a young age, and how she’s been working for equality ever since. And we’ll hear about her new book for kids, “This Is Your Time.”
We also welcome the students of Alice Deal Middle School in Northwest D.C., our school of the week. We know they’ll have questions for Ruby Bridges, but we’re taking your questions too — if you’re a kid!
This show is part of the “Kojo For Kids” series, a Kojo Nnamdi Show segment featuring guests of special interest to young listeners. Though Kojo has been on WAMU 88.5 for 23 years, this is the first time he has had the opportunity to reach out to an audience of kids, most of whom until recently had been in school during our live broadcast. We’re excited to hear from our youngest listeners! Join us!
Produced by Lauren Markoe
- Ruby Bridges Activist; @RubyBridges
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. When she was six years old, Ruby Bridges and her mother had to walk past crowds of screaming, angry white people who did not want a black kid like her to go to an all-white school. For a whole year she had guards, U.S. Marshals to protect her, just so she could go to school. Her bravery 60 years ago made Ruby Bridges one of the youngest heroes of the civil rights era, and she's been working for racial equity ever since.
KOJO NNAMDIRuby Bridges is here with us today to talk about what it was like to integrate her elementary school. And we'll hear about her new book "This is Your Time," which is about how kids today can be civil rights heroes, too. We also welcome the students of Alice Deal Middle School, our school of the week. You know they'll have questions for Ruby Bridges. Ruby Bridges, welcome to the program.
RUBY BRIDGESThank you so much for having me. It's, indeed, an honor.
NNAMDIThe honor is all ours. We are eager to talk about how you became the first black kid ever to attend your elementary school. But first, let's learn a little about you as a kid. Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
BRIDGESWell, I was actually born in a tiny town called Tylertown, Mississippi. And my parents, both father and mother, were from there, sharecroppers. We left Mississippi when I was about four years old and moved to New Orleans, which is where I grew up.
NNAMDIDid you have siblings?
BRIDGESOh, yes. As a matter of fact, I am the oldest of eight. At the time that I integrated school there were only probably, I think, about five of us. But I am the oldest.
NNAMDIWhat were you like when you were a kid? What did you like to do? Did you have any favorite toys, any favorite books?
BRIDGESMy favorite books actually came to me as a result of integrating school. You know, we -- my parents were consumed with where the next meal was going to come from, so I didn't really grow up in a house with books. But after I integrated school, I started to receive all sorts of gifts from all across the country. And one of those special gifts were Dr. Seuss books that I would get in the mail. And I so looked forward to them. I also had a Raggedy Ann doll, which was the thing for little girls at the time, so...
NNAMDIWell, your father died a while ago, and your mother died just a few months ago. Sincere condolences for your loss.
NNAMDIYour parents are very important in everything we're going to talk about today, before we go to the phones, since it was their decision to allow you to integrate your elementary school. What do you want us to know about your parents?
BRIDGESWell, my parents were not activists. As I said, they were sharecroppers. Both of them grew up on farms, and neither one of them had a formal education. That was a luxury for them. If it was time for them to get the crops in, they were not allowed to go to school. And I think that that had a huge impact on their decision to allow me to integrate one of the first schools in Louisiana, in New Orleans, at the time. I think that they, indeed, wanted something for me, opportunities that they did not have for themselves.
NNAMDILet's talk about when you were little, a time when black people and others worked to change the laws so everyone would have the same rights. In 1954, the Supreme Court, the most important court in the country, ruled that separating kids by race in public schools, having schools just for white kids where black students were not allowed, was against the law. But what a lot of young people today might not understand is that six years after that ruling, when you were going into first grade, the elementary school near your house was still all-white. Why was that, even though the court had said it shouldn't be that way?
BRIDGESWell, we know that that landmark case happened in 1954, which is actually the year that I was born, but I was often told that there was a loophole that said that they needed to implement it with all deliberate speed. That was the loophole. That meant that people had a choice as to when they wanted to implement the law, and it had not happened for six years in Louisiana.
BRIDGESSo, I was accustomed to going to school. I had gone to an all-black school that was further away from my home, for kindergarten. In a month or so of first grade, even though school started in September, this particular law was not implemented until November the 14th, which meant that I had to actually switch schools from the all-black school, which was further away from my home, and attend my neighborhood school which was very close to my house, but it was an all-white school.
NNAMDISo, it was your parents' decision to send you there, William Franz Elementary School. As you mentioned, it was all white. Why did they want you to go there? What was the difference between that school and the schools that black students attended?
BRIDGESWell, for my parents, what they heard is that by sending me, it would allow me an opportunity to possibly have a better education and the right to choose my own school. They also heard that it would allow me an opportunity to go to college. And, again, coming from where they came from and their background, that was just unheard of for them. So, they wanted those opportunities and those rights for their own children.
NNAMDIYour mother was, I think, a little more enthusiastic than your father was. It took a while for your father to agree. Can you tell us why he wasn't so sure that he wanted you to go there?
BRIDGESMy father fought in the Korean War. And I remember, he would always say that he remembered being on the frontline when it was his turn to go onto the frontline. And you could be fighting for the same county right next to a white soldier. You could be in a foxhole with a white soldier. But by the end of the day, if you were lucky enough to live, you could not go back to the same barracks and you couldn't eat in the same mess hall as a white soldier.
BRIDGESAnd so, he felt like if going through all that did not change things, then subjecting his child to what I was subjected to wouldn't change things. And, unfortunately, my father passed away when I was 21. He was only 46. And so, he never really had an opportunity to see the fruits of their labor.
NNAMDIAnd it is my understanding that after you started going to that school, your father got fired from his job.
BRIDGESYes. My father was a service station attendant. And once his boss found out that it was his daughter attending this white school, most of the customers started to complain, which resulted in my father's boss firing him.
NNAMDIAllow me to go to the phones, because there are a lot of kids, many of them from Alice Deal Middle School, awaiting us. Let's start with eight-year-old Sloan, who's from Colin Powell Elementary School in Centerville, Virginia. Sloan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SLOANHello. My question is, what did it feel like to be alone in the classroom?
BRIDGESHi, Sloan. It's a pleasure to be able to talk with you. That's a question that I get all the time. And I think the quickest way to sum it up is that I was really lonely. I had a great teacher, but I didn't have anyone my own age to befriend or play with. And so that made school really lonely for me.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Sloan. Now, here is 12-year-old Max, who's a student at Alice Deal in Washington. Max, it's your turn. Go ahead, please.
MAXHi. I'm Max. And my question is, how were the other teachers during your other grades?
BRIDGESHi, Max. Well, my teachers that taught me in the other grades, starting with second grade, there were lots of teachers who actually quit their jobs. They didn't want to teach black kids. And by the time I got into second grade, I was being taught by one of those teachers who had refused to teach me the year before. She was definitely not as nice to me as my first grade teacher. But pretty much, I have to say that it was a different experience, because at that point, I was with a full classroom of kids. And that made things a little bit easier for me, as well.
NNAMDIWell, go back to talk about your first grade teacher. Can you remember what it was like getting ready to go to school that very first day? What did your parents tell you to expect, and what do you think of those U.S. Marshals, essentially law enforcement people, who were sent to protect you?
BRIDGESWell, the truth is is that, you know, it would be really, really hard for parents to explain to a six-year-old what I was about to venture into. I mean, you have to think about it. What would you say? How would you prepare your child? You know, would you say there're going to be lots of people outside, it's really a mob, and they're there to keep you out? They don't like you and they're throwing things and, you know, they really don't want you there. But I'll be with you, and you'll have a great day. I mean, there's absolutely no way to explain that to your six-year-old without making it worse. And I do believe that my parents felt that way, so they never tried to explain anything to me.
BRIDGESThe only thing that I was told to prepared me for that experience is, Ruby, you're going to go to a new school today, and you better behave. And that was the extent of it. In hindsight, I think that what protected me that year was the innocence of a child, not really knowing what was going on around me.
NNAMDITell us about your first grade teacher. How did you get a first grade teacher?
BRIDGESMy first grade teacher actually came from Boston to teach me. Her husband was also in the military and stationed right outside of New Orleans. She was looking for a teacher's position and volunteered to teach me. I think that she was accustomed to teaching, on military bases, diverse groups of kids, and so it really didn't matter to her what I looked like. She was an amazing teacher, made school fun. I loved school because of her. We became best friends. And I do believe she was put there for me.
NNAMDIAnd her name?
BRIDGESHer name was Barbara Henry.
NNAMDIHere, now, is 13-year-old Madison from Alice Deal. Madison, your turn.
MADISONHi. Do you remember if you were scared when you were walking into the school building?
BRIDGESHi, Madison. What I remember about being frightened was there were days when people in the mob would bring a small baby's coffin. It was a real baby's coffin, and they would put this black doll inside. And whenever I would have to pass the coffin, because they would march around the school carrying it, I remember that that frightened me the most, that I would have nightmares about that at night. So, that is the one thing that stuck out in my mind and that I was always, always really afraid of.
NNAMDIMadison, thank you very much for your call. Here now is 11-year-old Analise, who is at Taylor Middle School in Warrington, Virginia. Analise, it's your turn. Go ahead, please. Hi, Analise, are you there? Analise is slowly coming to the phone. There we are.
ANALISEHi. I would like to ask two questions, if that's okay.
NNAMDIGo right ahead.
ANALISEOnce other children started coming to school, did you start to make any friends, at that point?
BRIDGESHi, Analise. To answer your question, I did not make friends until near the end of the year. There were only a handful of kids that actually crossed that picket line and entered into William Franz Elementary. The principal, who was part of the opposition, she decided to take those kids and hide them so that they would never see me, and I would not see them.
BRIDGESThere were times near the end of the year when I could hear them. I never saw them, but I could hear them. And I was constantly bringing that to the attention of Mrs. Henry. What I didn't know at the time and later came to realize that she was going to the principal and complaining, saying that the law is changed, and you are hiding kids from Ruby. That if you don't allow them to come together, I'm going to report you to the superintendent. So, that forced them to allow Mrs. Henry to take me to where they were. And that only happened on a couple of occasions.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Analise. Here, now, is 12-year-old Max at Alice Deal. Max, your turn.
MAXHi. My question is, where did you go for kindergarten?
NNAMDIRuby Bridges, did you hear that question? Max wanted to know where Ruby Bridges went for kindergarten. I think that, for the time being, we have lost Ruby Bridges. So, we will try to reach her presumably by phone, but I'll take a note...
NNAMDIThere you are. Twelve-year-old Max wanted to know, where did you go for kindergarten?
BRIDGESFor kindergarten I went to an all-black school. It was called Johnson Lockett Elementary, which was much further away from my home.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Max. Ruby Bridges, I think this is a good time to hear from your new book for kids in which you tell your story. It's called "This is Your Time." I think I've personally read it four times, (laugh) but would you read a bit of it for us, please?
BRIDGESDefinitely. Sixty years ago, in 1960, my life changed forever. Although I was not aware of it, our nation was changing, too. What I remember about that time, through my six-year-old eyes, is that there was lots of extreme unrest, much like we see today. I was chosen to be the first child to go to an all-white school, William Franz Elementary in my hometown of New Orleans. I did not yet know that I had stepped into the history books.
BRIDGESFor my whole first year, I had to be escorted to and from my school by four federal marshals under order of the President of the United States, because people were afraid for my safety. Going into and coming out of school every day, I walked through crowds of people yelling, screaming threats, throwing things at six-year-old me. They were against the integration of black and white children in the same schools.
BRIDGESI had been so excited to meet and make new friends at school and was met with something utterly different and terrifying. It was a difficult decision for both of my parents to agree to let me go to school along with the marshals, especially from my dad. But they knew it was necessary.
BRIDGESMy father, like most dads, wanted nothing more than to protect his little girl. But as a young black man, it was not safe for him to walk me to school every day. My father loved me more than I would ever know, and I felt that he was my very own hero. He was also a hero, a real hero, having received a Purple Heart for bravery while serving overseas in the Korean War. But he did not return to a hero's welcome. There was little work given to young black men back then.
BRIDGESWhen I arrived at this all-white school that first day, all of the white parents rushed in and pulled out their kids. They didn't want their children going to school with me. But why? I didn't understand. They had never met or even seen me before now, so how could they know what kind of person I was? But none of that mattered. I don't think they even saw a child. All they saw was the color of my skin. I was black, and that meant I didn't matter.
NNAMDIRuby Bridges reading from her latest book. It is called "This is Your Time." Ruby Bridges, you wrote your book in the form of a letter to the young peacemakers of America. Who are they, and why did you write this book for them?
BRIDGESWell, you know, after I saw the murder of George Floyd, all I could think about was what my babies, my young people were actually thinking, watching that themselves. And for the past 25 years, I'd gone into schools all across the country explaining to kids how I felt like racism had no place in their minds and in their hearts, and that they needed to be united. And I felt like I needed to be able to address them in some way, but being on lockdown, like all of us, because of the virus, I wasn't able to do that.
BRIDGESAnd so very dear friends of mine, after consulting with them, we felt like the best approach would be to write a letter to them. And so, I wanted to do that, to explain to them what I saw. What I was seeing reminded me so much of what I saw and was a part of during the civil rights movement in 1960. It looked very much the same. I wanted to assure them that just as we had to go through the civil rights movement to get to where we are today, unfortunately, that we have to go through sort of the same behavior to move this country forward in the direction that so many of us are hoping that it will soon be.
BRIDGESAnd to help them to understand that they, too, have a responsibility to carry the torch and to make sure that they do their part of protesting and helping this country to live up to its name, the United States of America. So, that's what this book is about. That's what my letter was about, addressed to peacemakers, because I hope that that's what they will become.
NNAMDII'm really glad you mentioned that they are going to school during a pandemic, because 11-year-old Luke from Alice Deal, who has a twin sister by the -- no, with his sister Lena, both have a question for you related to that. Luke, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LUKEThank you so much, Mr. Nnamdi, for taking our call. Ms. Bridges, it's an honor to speak with you. Our question for you is, we're both in virtual school because of the pandemic, and we are doing well, but we know that some kids are having trouble. With all of your experience in overcoming challenges at a very young age, what is your advice to those students?
BRIDGESWell, first, I'd like to say that it's an honor to speak with you. I can tell that you are an excellent reader, which is great. My advice is to remain hopeful that, you know, sometimes we have to go through struggle to get to a better place. That's what I was doing at six years old.
BRIDGESIt was quite a struggle to be there in that classroom alone, every day, walking through that mob. But ultimately, it helped us as young people to have the right to choose our own schools and to have the opportunity to go to school with kids that look different. So, ultimately, that walk actually changed the face of education for all of us. And so, I would say, remain hopeful that we are going to get to a better place in time.
NNAMDIAnd thank you very much for your call both Luke and Lena. I'm afraid that's about all the time we have. Ruby Bridges, thank you so much for joining us.
BRIDGESWell, I so appreciate the opportunity. This is always near and dear to my heart to be able to connect and talk with young people, and especially during a time like this, when we're all on lockdown due to this virus. But I do know that we are going to be together sometime very soon in the near future. So, I appreciate the invitation.
NNAMDIRuby Bridges is a civil rights activist and author. Her latest book is called "This is Your Time." Today's segment on President's Day was produced by Ines Renique, and our Kojo for Kids with Ruby Bridges was produced by Lauren Markoe.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, eight-year-old Relisha Rudd disappeared from a D.C. homeless shelter in 2014. Seven years later, Relisha is still missing. In the first season of WAMU's new podcast "Through the Cracks," host Jonquilyn Hill investigates. And please join me tomorrow evening at 7:30 for our next "Kojo in Your Community." We'll discuss how local leaders are tackling racism across our institutions. It's virtual, and it's free. Go to WAMU.org to register. Thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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