Black History speaker recounts historic elementary integration

Ruby Bridges Hall told more than 200 people in a Baton Rouge federal courtroom Friday what it was like to be the first little black girl at an all-white elementary school in New Orleans more than 52 years ago.

Hall, the main speaker at the court’s 18th annual Black History Month observance, said her parents made a correct decision not to tell her why crowds of white people would gather at William Frantz Elementary School in the Ninth Ward and scream words she had not heard before.

The six-year-old Ruby Bridges saw those people behind police barricades in November 1960 and thought: “It’s Mardi Gras. I’m in a parade,” Hall said. “So, I wasn’t afraid.”

Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson noted that Hall and he have been friends for more than 20 years and that she was his first private-practice client after he ended a former career as a federal prosecutor.

Jackson also noted that author John Steinbeck, winner of the 1962 Nobel Prize in literature, was in New Orleans the first month that Ruby Bridges became the only student in her first-grade class because white parents pulled their children out of Frantz Elementary. The judge said Steinbeck witnessed the taunts and insults and later wrote of the experience in his book “Travels with Charley.”

“The papers had printed that the jibes and jeers were cruel and sometimes obscene, and so they were,” Steinbeck wrote of the terrible events that drew him to New Orleans.

Ruby Bridges was escorted by four federal deputy marshals to and from the school, day after day, past white adults and teenagers shouting insults and threats.

Some of those horrible moments were captured in black-and-white by news photographers.

Four years later, nationally known illustrator Norman Rockwell added colors to those images in a painting that spread across two pages of Look magazine.

Decades later, the painting was displayed at the White House.

In that painting, the little black six-year-old is dressed in white as she walks toward the school entrance between two pair of gray-suited deputy marshals, past a white wall marred by the red splash of a hurled tomato and one scrawled word — “nigger.”

A daughter of one of those deputy marshals listened intently to Hall’s words Friday.

Donna Gregory, chief deputy clerk at the federal courthouse in Baton Rouge, was not born until three years after Ruby Bridges integrated Frantz Elementary.

And Gregory did not learn until her daughter and son were in elementary school that her father, Tom Grace, was one of the deputy marshals who regularly escorted Ruby Bridges.

Grace, who in 1972 became the first U.S. marshal for the Baton Rouge-based Middle District of Louisiana, was asked about 15 years ago by his granddaughter whether he knew anything about Ruby Bridges. So Grace told his children and grandchildren about his service in protection of the little girl, Gregory said.

“They were very proud of their grandfather,” Gregory said of her children.

Friday marked the first time for Gregory to speak with Hall.

“I just told her that it was an honor to meet her and that my father was proud to have escorted her to school,” Gregory said.

Hall told her audience she did not really understand the situation at William Frantz until after her teacher successfully argued for the right to introduce her to a small group of white students who returned, but were taught in a separate classroom.

She quoted one little boy as saying: “I can’t play with you because my Mom said you’re a nigger.”

Hall added: “He made it all make sense. I was never angry, but he hurt my feelings. I just wanted friends.”

“We should not pass racism on to our kids,” Hall said. “That is my message.”