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'I Am Ruby Bridges': Students Remember 1st-Grader’s Historic Walk 60 Years Later

Aubri Juhasz
Students follow Ruby Bridges' footsteps at Akili Academy, formerly William Frantz Elementary, in the Upper 9th Ward.

Students at Akili Academy in New Orleans’ Upper 9th Ward marked the 60-year anniversary of Civil Rights icon Ruby Bridges’ historic walk by retracing her steps Friday morning.

Bridges was the first Black student to attend William Frantz Elementary, now the site of Akili Academy, after federal courts ordered the desegregation of public schools. Today, Akili, a public charter school, is almost entirely Black.

Holding signs reading “Good Job Ruby” and “Don’t Look Back Be Strong,” students walked the perimeter of the building before gathering on its front steps. Tryphena Hughes, Akili’s dean of enrichment, explained how Bridges was feeling when she approached the school for the first time.

“She didn’t get nervous until she realized that the large crowd she saw wasn’t a Mardi Gras crowd,” Hughes said, showing students a photo of the protestors who gathered to hurl insults and threats at the first grader.

“They were angry because this little Black girl was going to be in school with white students. They didn’t like that, so they pulled their students out of school,” Hughes said.

She explained how Bridges and her mother, Lucille, were courageous and how their actions helped change the world. The elder Bridges died this past week at the age of 86.

Credit Aubri Juhasz / WWNO
Akili Academy students hold signs honoring Civil Rights activist Ruby Bridges on Nov. 13, 2020.

“We have work still left to do,” said Orleans Parish School Board President Ethan Ashley after Friday’s event. “It's unfortunate that I am unable to tell a young group here that we have made it because we haven't.”

Ashley said the school board’s biggest priority is making sure the district’s 45,000 students have access to highly-rated schools. Right now, about half have D or F letter grades given by the state.

“Look at this million-dollar-plus facility,” Ashley said, gesturing toward Akili. “Every young person deserves to have access to something like this. It doesn't matter what color, creed or religion that you're in.”

Akili is a C-rated school with a student body that is 99.9 percent African American. Ashley said that while Bridges was fighting to attend an all-white institution, what she was really pushing for was quality education, something Akili provides.

In Louisiana, there’s a gap between Black and white education attainment. In New Orleans, that gap is three times as large. Researchers believe this is a sign that quality education is still not accessible to all.

Earlier this year the Orleans Parish School Board approved a proposal to examine the district’s policies and develop a racial equity plan. The process is currently ongoing.

Credit Aubri Juhasz / WWNO
A statue honoring Ruby Bridges stands in the courtyard at Akili Academy in New Orleans Upper 9th Ward.

“Our school system recognizes that we have a long way to go,” Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said Friday. “We have an obligation to make sure that we're addressing those things because if we don't, it's going to influence in a very negative way the outcomes for our young people.”

Lewis said the district has already taken important steps to address equity in its schools, including beginning the process of renaming schools named after white supremacists and improving the Travis Hill schools that serve incarcerated students.

During a discussion with Akili’s fourth grade students, Lewis said the election of Kamala Harris as the country’s next vice president illustrates the lasting impacts of Ruby Bridges’ bravery.

Credit Aubri Juhasz / WWNO
Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. discusses Ruby Bridges' legacy with Akili Academy fourth-graders.

It’s a sentiment that’s been shared widely in the last few days, thanks to an image created by designer Bria Goeller. The viral illustration shows a determined Harris alongside the shadow of a young Bridges and is based on a Norman Rockwell painting.

At the end of their conversation, Lewis asked students whether they could have done what Ruby Bridges did 60 years ago.

Some of the students, mostly young girls, proudly shouted yes. Some students paused to think it over and a few said no.

Lewis told them it was okay to be afraid and not to feel bad. Instead, they should be thankful and remember that one person’s actions can change the world.

He asked the students if they wanted to change the world. With every hand raised, Lewis encouraged them to repeat the words, “I am Ruby Bridges.”

Aubri Juhasz is the education reporter for New Orleans Public Radio. Before coming to New Orleans, she was a producer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She helped lead the show's technology and book coverage and reported her own feature stories, including the surge in cycling deaths in New York City and the decision by some states to offer competitive video gaming to high school students as an extracurricular activity.

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