Six-year-old Ruby Bridges stepped into the United States history books on Nov. 14, 1960, as she endeared taunts and racism from a crowd while four federal marshals escorted her to her first day of first grade as the first Black student to attend previously all-white William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans.
On this past Nov. 14, eighth-graders at Whitehorse Middle School on Madison’s east side honored the national icon for the civil rights movement by going on their own Ruby Bridges Walk.
“We wanted to celebrate Ruby Bridges and everything that she has done for education and for desegregation and just civil rights history,” Whitehorse Middle School 8th grade teacher Tuyet Cullen tells Madison365. “So the social studies classes leading up to the Ruby Bridges Walk to School Day, they did lessons on the history of who she is and what she’s done.”
Nov. 14 was Ruby Bridges Recognition Day and the Whitehorse walk idea originated with Colleen Hayes, who had been MSCR’s Whitehorse coordinator a few years back, who reached out to Cullen and her co-teacher Fawn O’Brien.
“Prior to the walk, we watched an autobiographical film that was made about Ruby Bridges. Students were able to kind of talk about what they noticed,” Cullen says. “The movie showed the six-year-old kid and what she went through in a pretty upfront way – the protesting that happened as Ruby would walk to school and what people would say to her. It was a very powerful experience to talk about the dignity of this six-year-old in such an intense, tumultuous experience.”
Whitehorse’s walk in the area close to the school was much more joyous than Ruby’s walk in 1960.
“We just had a nice day just walking and just being outside and it’s the first time we’ve coordinated an all-group field trip since COVID,” Cullen says. “So these students haven’t had any sort of non-academic focused day of off-campus learning since their fifth-grade year … and they’re now eighth graders.”
Back in 2018, a group of fifth graders in the South San Francisco Unified School District were so inspired by Ruby Bridges’ courage that they advocated making Nov. 14 “Ruby Bridges Day.” In September 2021, the California State Senate passed a resolution proclaiming that date to be “Ruby Bridges Walk to School Day.”
Other schools throughout the nation have replicated and celebrated the Ruby Bridges Walk to School Day.
Cullen says that it’s important that her students, and society in general, realize that Ruby Bridges’ first day of school did not happen that long ago and that Ruby Bridges is still alive and well and only just in her 60s, but the head of The Ruby Bridges Foundation that has the vision to “give kids an equal opportunity to succeed.”
“I think that’s what’s special about Ruby Bridges is that so often students tend to think that the civil rights and all the people that did the work during that time in history are either really old or they’ve passed away and it really brings it home to how recent that was,” Cullen says. “When you think about Ruby Bridges being still active and a head of her own foundation and still continuing to work to educate people about the way our country hasn’t fully recognized the long reach of slavery, it really brings it home. This isn’t that long ago. This isn’t ancient history. Even though the pictures on the TV may sometimes be black and white, it’s not that old. It’s recent history.”
The Ruby Bridges Walk was a special day at Whitehorse Middle School for many reasons. Cullen says she loved how it got her students asking questions and interacting around important historical events.
“There’s a student that doesn’t talk a lot in school and during the walk, the student and I walked together, and I have not heard that student talk that much in one sitting,” she says. “So that student talked to me more during that hour-and-a-half walk than in the three months of school that we’ve had so far. So that was really joyful and impactful for me … to get to know a student in a little more in a personal setting.”