By JONATHAN TILOVE
February 9, 2006
c.2006 Newhouse News Service
NEW ORLEANS _ Ruby Bridges has a dream.
She wants to integrate the William Frantz elementary school.
The last time was in 1960. She was 6 years old. Every school day, accompanied by federal marshals, little Ruby walked past the taunts and threats of a white mob and into the Frantz school, into the pages of history, and _ thanks to a Norman Rockwell painting of her stoic, straight-ahead stride _ into an indelible place in the American heart and mind.
Now, at 52, back in New Orleans after a temporary dislocation to Jackson, Miss., Bridges is determined to save the Frantz school, which was on the verge of closing even before Hurricane Katrina left it a battered relic amid the ruins of the city’s Lower Ninth Ward.
The streets around Frantz are littered with loss: A little girl’s purple and aqua “Slumber Party” bicycle, a single red pump, a pile of vinyl 45s _ The Raelets, Teddy Pendergrass, Solomon Burke, The Fifth Dimension with their cover of “Feelin’ Alright.” There is a huge tire on the school’s front steps, a sofa frame and a mattress in the side yard. Pieces of the roof are strewn everywhere.
“You know, I’m a dreamer,” Bridges says. “I believe with the right support, we can go in and actually rebuild a first-class school, which is something the city definitely needs. I would like to see a community rebuilt around the school.”
But, more than that, she wants the school to be integrated. After all, she says, that was the whole point back in 1960, and ought to be today. But how, in a city where the public schools, before Katrina, were almost entirely black?
“A lot of people of my generation have somewhat gotten past our racial differences and it really doesn’t matter who our kids sit next to,” says Bridges. “If you could find a school that offered your child a first-class education that you did not have to pay an arm and a leg for, I think you would enroll your children.”
Bridges is at a corner table at Zea Rotisserie on St. Charles Avenue during a bustling lunch hour.
Her waitress, Amanda Holman, recognizes her. A few weeks ago, Holman, who grew up here, had never heard of Ruby Bridges. But that was before her 8-year-old daughter, Sydney, a student at the very integrated Phoebe Hearst Elementary School in suburban Metairie, came home one afternoon breathless with passion after reading “The Story of Ruby Bridges.” She retold her mom the tale of the little girl who braved all that hate when, as Sydney put it, “all she wanted to do was go to school.” Right after that Holman saw something about Bridges on TV, and now, here she was, at her table.
A little while later Henry Austan approaches. During the civil rights movement, he was part of the Deacons for Defense, a black organization that believed in armed self-defense. Austan made his own mark in history in the summer of 1965. When a black teenage girl was hit by a brick during a march in Bogalusa, La., Austan stopped an approaching white mob by shooting one of the men leading the attack in the chest.
Austan beams as he takes in Bridges. “I’m looking at you, that picture stuck with me all my life. It’s iconic,” he says. “All I did was shoot a Klansman. That only took a moment. What you did took a hell of a lot more. That was courage.”
She was, as John Steinbeck described her in “Travels with Charley,” “the littlest Negro girl you ever saw, dressed in shining starchy white, with new white shoes on feet so little they were almost round.” Steinbeck encountered the scene at the end of a journey across America that is the basis of the book, and he was sickened by the invective _ “bestial and filthy and degenerate” _ that rained down on Ruby.
Bridges remembers a woman who kept threatening to poison her. She remembers the little coffin they held up toward her, a coffin into which was laid a little black doll.
As Bridges’ mother, Lucille, later told her, “she had to send me to school and just wait every afternoon and see if I would come back.” (Since Katrina, her mother is living in Houston, which is home to two other daughters.)
At 17, Ruby Bridges had a son, Craig, the first of four. The night of last July 4, he was shot to death on the streets of New Orleans. No one was arrested, Bridges says; “I think that it’s probably very, very hard to pick that investigation back up after the storm.”
His death was both horrible and familiar. In the early 1990s, her youngest brother, Clarence, was shot dead in front of the Florida Public Housing Development where the family used to live, and he still did.
“One thing I always said, I will never teach my children to only trust people that look like them and then open my door and send them out into the world today because we know evil comes in all shades and colors,” Bridges says. “For me, having lost a brother and now having lost a son, and knowing for a fact that the people that actually took his life looked exactly like him, I would never do that and never advise any parent to do that.”
She continues: “You know we are talking about rebuilding New Orleans and I am all for that. I mean I love New Orleans, but if we are going to rebuild what we had before Katrina, I’ll be the first one out of here. I think we need to be extremely careful about the element that was in this city and taking lives every day for no reason. It’s not worth living in a place like that.
“As African-Americans, if it had been any other race slaughtering our children, we would have taken to the street long ago, protesting, marching, doing everything we did when our people were being hung in trees, so I don’t understand why we don’t take to the streets today, because simply because a person looks like you doesn’t mean that they are of you.”
For decades, Bridges lived out of public view.
When Brian Jackson, a New Orleans lawyer and former assistant U.S. attorney, first encountered a print of the Rockwell painting at a shop in Baton Rouge (the original is in the permanent collection at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Masss., http://www.nrm.org), he assumed it depicted a scene in Little Rock, Ark. He bought it and only later learned it took place in his home town.
The following February, he wanted to reunite Bridges with one of the U.S. marshals who had protected her, at a Justice Department Black History Month event in New Orleans. Try as he might, he couldn’t locate her.
But when Jackson took his Rockwell print to be framed, there was another copy in the shop window. The proprietor told him, “that’s Ruby’s picture; she’s coming to pick it up.” She lived a few streets away, working as a travel agent.
The death of her brother reconnected Bridges with Frantz, where three of his four daughters were in school. She took them into her home for a while, and, after founding the Ruby Bridges Foundation, created art, dance and etiquette classes at Frantz using proceeds from “The Ruby Bridges Story,” written by Robert Coles, the Harvard University psychiatrist who as a young Air Force doctor had counseled her through the ordeal. In 1999, she wrote her own account, “Through My Eyes,” and in recent years has visited schools across America nine months of the year.
Since Katrina, just a smattering of New Orleans public schools have reopened, mostly as charter schools. Bridges figures that is the route she and her foundation will take in trying to reopen Frantz. She has promises of support from some corporations. A Jewish Day School in New York has offered landscaping help. At an event at the Japanese embassy in Washington last fall, the ambassador invited her to Japan, and she plans a money-raising trip there.
“I think right now is perfect timing,” she says. “The storm has paved the way for funders all across the world to want to help New Orleans.”
The odds against reclaiming and reintegrating Frantz would seem long. But Bridges says she has come to trust in faith, and in her own will.
“That’s really my personality,” she says. “Once I’m stuck on something, that’s it.”