Ruby Bridges Paid a High Price for Going to An All-White School—And Black Kids Today Are Too

Though she is known as an icon of the civil rights movement and equitable schooling, Ruby Bridges' role in desegregating schools actually cost her a quality education.

Ruby Bridges, age 6, stands in front of the door of her home
Photo: Getty Images

When 6-year-old Ruby Bridges walked into William Frantz Elementary School on November 14, 1960, her community placed indescribable hope in her footsteps. But the familiar images of her small frame surrounded by an angry white mob, federal marshals, and her mother only tell part of the story. Bridges went down in history as the representation of integration, the fulfilled promise of the U.S. Supreme Court's unanimous 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing segregation in schools. Her mother hoped this meant her daughter would finally have access to the quality education she deserved. But at least for a while, those steps into her elementary school marked a harder life, not a better one.

As the only Black student in her school, Bridges was often isolated and alone. Her teacher, the only one willing to have her in her class, didn't let her play or eat with the other students out of fear for her safety. Her father lost his job, her mother struggled to find places that would sell them food, and her grandparents, who were sharecroppers, were evicted. Her parents ultimately divorced, in part, due to the pressure of their opposing opinions about Bridges' role in integration. Their Black community stepped up to help her father find work and assisted with child care for her younger siblings.

Generations later, though many things have improved since Bridges integrated schools, many things haven't. Countless Black families still feel the pressure to send their children to "elite," and often predominately white schools, to give them a chance at social mobility. Unequal access to quality education still leaves these families choosing between communities, and racism in schools often leaves Black youth vulnerable to discipline and at risk for lower achievement.

Ruby Bridges is escorted by US Federal Marshals into William Frantz elementary school
Underwood Archives/Getty Images

When asked what's at risk when we place quests for social mobility over healthy racial socialization, Dr. Erlanger Turner, Ph.D. licensed psychologist and founder of Therapy for Black Kids, says the overwhelming majority of Black youth experience at least one discrimination per year, and those incidents come with risks for negative psychological outcomes. When we place our quests for social mobility over environments that affirm Black youth, they face "high risks" for discrimination from peers and teachers.

Sydney Moore, 25, attended schools in the Blue Springs School District in Missouri—nearby Black students are still dealing with racism—and still remembers the discomfort she felt during moments like her third-grade lesson on slavery. "Everyone just stared at me while our teacher explained the history like I somehow was a slave myself and had experienced that horror," she says. "That was about when the comments and nicknames began—questions about my hair, jokes about my darkness, being called an 'oreo,' and sometimes even the 'n' word."

Black students may also feel that they have limited support from their peers, faculty, and parents. Moore recalls feeling like she couldn't speak out on the challenges she faced out of gratitude for her parent's efforts to get her into a quality school in a good neighborhood. "My schools were on paper ' better,' but for as great as they were on paper, I felt constantly othered," she says, noting the years she felt out of place with Black and white students alike.

Dr. Turner says in some situations, sending children to mostly white schools for better opportunities can have the opposite effect. "Some unanticipated consequences could be increased risk for anxiety, depression, or poor self-esteem, which can all impact academic success and performance," he says.

Without healthy racial socialization from their parents, Black children can also internalize negative messages and struggle to process their identity. Moore experiences this firsthand, expressing a lingering uncertainty over her identity. "When you are surrounded by white people, they get to define what your Blackness is—not you or any of the few others who look like you. You are given a set character description and not many chances to change it," she says.

Ruby Bridges attends the 2017 Glamour Women Of The Year Awards
Taylor Hill/Getty Images

Jamie Means, 26, lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and says as a "gifted student", she attended predominantly white elementary and middle schools in Spartanburg, South Carolina. There were positives—she was focused and worked hard. But there was also pressure to prove that she was qualified as one of few non-white students. "Even though I knew that I was smart, not being around others that looked like me made me feel like I did not 'belong,'" she says, noting she understood her parents wanted her to have the best opportunities.

Dr. Turner says access to the village—i.e., other Black families, students, and teachers—is an important element of positive educational outcomes for Black youth because it helps with identity and development. He says the village is more than representation, it provides access to emotional support and a sense of community which are important to consider in our efforts to make sure our children are successful.

For Black students, representation and mentorship matter, especially for those considering industries with low Black representation, says Dr.Turner. "There is significant research that demonstrates how representation can help to promote self-esteem and reduce feelings of imposter syndrome."

Now years later, Means is planning ahead and knows she wants the best of both worlds for her nine-month-old daughter. She isn't just looking for achievement. She's interested in diversity and inclusion and safety. "It is important for me to find a school where my daughter is challenged and has the opportunity to excel academically without compromising her ability to be exposed to various demographics so that she will grow into a culturally competent adult," she says.

Dr. Turner says locating the best school for Black children starts with going to see the environment firsthand. "When you visit the potential school, ask questions and make observations," he says, suggesting parents ask administration and teachers questions that explore how their policies address how they handle racial discrimination. "Also, observe how children interact with each other and teachers. Do you see how teachers or administration affirm Black youth? This can be a snapshot of what your child may experience while attending the school."

The American Psychological Association is one of a growing number of resources where parents can find tools for racial socialization. Dr. Turners' platform, Therapy for Black kids, not only assists with this process but also highlights other Black mental health professionals who address these concerns.

Ruby Bridges continues to live an impactful life that sparks necessary conversations on race. But in spite of all she went through to reform education, she didn't go to college, they couldn't afford it—especially not after her parents separated. She's proud of the role she served in history but she continues to speak publicly on the sadness of being isolated from her peers and the importance of desegregating schools.

Black families shouldn't still be choosing between a quality education and an environment that affirms their identities, fifty years after Bridges' footsteps. But they do every day.

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