In 1960, when Ruby Bridges went to hang her coat in the closet at William Frantz Elementary School in the Upper 9th Ward, she could hear the voices of children in other classrooms. Bridges, who at 6 years old was the first African-American student to integrate the formerly all-white public elementary school, did not know that other children even went to school with her — because her classes were held with a private tutor.
On Nov. 14, Bridges eyed that same closet, renovated now, from the front of the classroom where she had private lessons with her teacher Barbara Henry. "Maybe it's turned into something else now," she said. "But I used to go through there to hang up my coat. And I would always hear voices in the closet of kids. I never saw any kids, but every time I went in to hang up my coat, I would hear them laughing and talking. And it made me very curious as to where they were."
The occasion was a ceremony for Bridges, now 60, at the former school (now Akili Academy) to unveil a statue of the little girl who had to be escorted to and from school by U.S. marshals. Bridges, Henry, family, friends and a dozen journalists gathered in the classroom where Bridges and Henry integrated the New Orleans public school system, making national headlines.
"Why couldn't I see them?" Bridges asked about her classmates. "Little did I know that Mrs. Henry was constantly going to the principal, complaining that they were actually hiding the kids from me."
When Bridges finally did get to meet the other students at school, she realized why people were picketing outside of the building. "That moment I understood that it wasn't Mardi Gras outside," she said. "They were out there because of the color of my skin. It was this real awakening for me as to what racism really meant."
The statue by artist Mario Chiodo stands in the courtyard and will be a permanent fixture at Akili Academy. — JEANIE RIESS