Thursday, May 12, 2005

"I thought it was Mardis Gras" 

In November of 1960, a six year old girl was escorted by four federal marshals to William Frantz Elementary in New Orleans. The little girl's name was Ruby Bridges, and she braved threatening, hateful throngs of parents and children who did not want her to become the first black student to attend an all white grade school in the Deep South. The angry white mob shouted racial obscenities, threw stones and rotten fruit and eggs at the girl and her escorts.

One mother vowed to poison her (and would continue to do so nearly every morning thereafter: "I'll find a way" she yelled.) So-called "Chearleaders" chanted "2-4-6-8 we will never integrate", and so on. Fortunately, this loathsome display was captured on film, and broadcast to other parts of the country which put further pressure on defiant Louisiana segregationists.

Little Ruby did not yet understand why the crowds were yelling and throwing things. "Driving up I could see the crowd, but living in New Orleans, I actually thought it was Mardi Gras. There was a large crowd of people outside of the school. They were throwing things and shouting, and that sort of goes on in New Orleans at Mardi Gras.", she later said. Norman Rockwell commemorated her bravery in a classic depiction he painted four years later:


The Problem We All Live With

As Ruby later described, her family paid a steep price for their decision to have her attend William Frantz that year:

Militant segregationists, as the news called them, took to the streets in protest, and riots erupted all over the city [over 200 were arrested]. My parents shielded me as best they could, but I knew problems had come to our family because I was going to the white school. My father was fired from his job. The white owners of a grocery store told us not to shop there anymore. Even my grandparents in Mississippi suffered. The owner of the land they'd sharecropped for 25 years said everyone knew it was their granddaughter causing trouble in New Orleans, and asked them to move.
Since then, whites have completely fled the neighborhood. Now William Frantz Elementary is 99.7% black, reflecting its surrounding demographics. Today, the New Orleans School Board took another step toward fulfilling the (interim) Superintendant's plan to consolidate the historic school; removing its current students and its name.

I'm opposed to this measure and support the Ruby Bridges Foundation's goal to make William Frantz Elementary a national historical landmark. Whatever dubious monetary savings may be gained from sacrificing our history is simply not worth it. What would New Orleanian Homer Plessy say, who unsuccessfully fought segregation 68 years prior? And what should we say now, as our school system is a dramatic illustration of how "separate and (un)equal" can permutate and survive over the years?

How do we build excellent schools that will attract a diverse student body? In short, how will we integrate schools like William Frantz once again?
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13 Comments:

I have always loved this painting yet had no clue what the story was behind it. This year, only my 3rd of teaching, my 10th grade students were telling me of a book about a girl named 'Ruby' and her plight in a racist society. They couldn't remember the whole title. I'm guessing it is 'Ruby Bridges.'

I was doing research on Mardi Gras when I came across this Rockwell image and decided to click on it which led me to your blogspot. How interesting things work out sometimes. I hope to get the book and read it for myself now.

Thanks, Michelle

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