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Kate Dudding: Voices From the Past: March, 2013
This is the eighteenth issue of Voices From the Past. My goal for each issue is to publish some highlights of one of my historical stories as well as an update on my activities.
Ruby's Story - The Story Behind the Picture
This is the beginning of a new story of mine.
Do you remember this painting by Norman Rockwell? It was in Look Magazine in 1964. It's a painting of Ruby Bridges.
Ruby Bridges was a six year old first grader in New Orleans when her mother told her on Sunday, Nov. 13, 1960 “You’ll be starting at a new school tomorrow. There might be a lot of people outside the school. But you don’t need to be afraid. I’ll be with you.”
Ruby wasn’t happy – she thought “I’m not going to be going to school with my friends anymore.” But she just said, as she had been taught, “Yes, ma’am.”
Much to Ruby’s and her mother’s surprise, four U.S. federal marshals knocked on their front door the next morning, escorted them into a car and drove them the rive blocks to Ruby’s new school. One marshal told them in the car, “Let us get out of the cars first. Then you’ll get out, and the four of us will surround you. We’ll walk up to the door together. Just walk straight ahead, and don’t look back.”
Ruby’s mother told her, “Ruby, I want you to behave yourself today and do what the marshals say.”
In front of the school there were barricades and people shouting and policemen everywhere. Ruby thought, “Maybe it’s Mardi Gras – that’s always noisy.”
“I didn’t see any faces as we walked through the crowd because I wasn’t very tall and I was surrounded by the marshals. People yelled and threw things. I could see the school building, and it looked bigger and nicer than my old school. The policemen at the door and the crowd behind us made me think this was an important place. It must be college, I thought to myself.”
"Mama and I sat in the principal’s office all day. The marshals were outside in the main office. There was a window between the two offices. All day I watched upset white parents rush into the main office, arguing and pointing at us. We just sat and waited all day. We didn’t talk to anybody. When it was 3:00, the marshals walked us out of the school."
"The crowd outside was bigger and louder. It seemed to take us a long time to get to the marshals’ car. All I remember seeing is a black doll in a coffin, which frightened me more than the nasty things people screamed at us.”
This was the first day of court ordered integration in New Orleans – Nov. 14, 1960. Earlier that year, the school board had decided to comply with the court order by integrating the first grades. All African American kindergarteners had taken an entrance test the previous spring. Surprisingly, only six passed the test and only four of those chose to integrate a white school. Ruby was the only one going to her new school; three other African American girls attended a different elementary school in New Orleans. Ruby’s father feared that his family might be hurt. The NAACP pressured Ruby’s parents to send her to that nearby school, a better one than the more distant black school that Ruby had attended.
Ruby’s mother didn’t think they would be harmed. She wanted Ruby and her younger siblings to get the best education possible. Ruby’s mother had grown up then married on a sharecropper’s farm. She said, “On the day before Ruby was born, I carried 90 pounds of cotton on my back under the broiling sun. I wanted a better life for Ruby.” That’s why Ruby’s family had moved to New Orleans – for a better life.
Ruby’s mother finally convinced Ruby’s father to let Ruby go to the white school. But they didn’t explain any of this to Ruby, just telling her that she was going to a new school. But then again, how do you explain all this to a six year old???
Ruby later said, “As the marshals walked us through the crowd, people spat at us and shouted nasty things. One woman screamed at me, 'I’m going to poison you. I’ll find a way.' She would make that same threat every morning."
"A young white woman met us inside the building. She smiled at me. "Good morning, Ruby Nell," she said, just like Mama except with what I later learned was a Boston accent. 'Welcome, I'm your new teacher, Mrs. Henry.' She seemed nice, but I wasn't sure how to feel about her. I'd never been taught by a white teacher before."
"Mrs. Henry took Mama and me to her second-floor classroom. All the desk were empty and she asked me to choose a seat. I picked one up front, and Mrs. Henry started teaching me the letters of the alphabet."
"I wasn’t allowed to have lunch in the cafeteria or go outside for recess, so we just stayed in our room. The marshals sat outside. If I had to go to the bathroom, the marshals walked me down the hall."
"Mama sat in the classroom that day, but not the next."
"The next morning my mother told me, 'I can't go to school with you today. I have to work and look after your brothers and sister. The marshals will take good care of you, Ruby Nell. Remember, if you get afraid, say your prayers. You can pray to God anytime, anywhere. He will always hear you.'"
"That was how I started praying on the way to school. The things people yelled at me didn't seem to touch me. Prayer was my protection. After walking up the steps past the angry crowd, though, I was glad to see Mrs. Henry. She gave me a hug, and she sat right by my side instead of at the big teacher's desk in the front of the room."
"Day after day, it was just Mrs. Henry and me, working on my lessons."
What a courageous little girl. It is an honor for me to share this story with you.
Here is some more information about Ruby Bridges, including a video of her visit to the White House in 2011.
News about me
My third CD, Young People Who Made a Difference, has been named winner of a 2013 Storytelling World Resource Award in the adolescent listeners category.
Storytelling World is a fully-refereed journal offered annually through National Storytelling Network's Storytelling Magazine. Each year, Storytelling World gives awards to the most exciting new stories that audiences of various ages would enjoy hearing and storytelling resources that offer information about the field of storytelling. This year's 34 award winners, selected from several hundred nominated stories, books, and recordings, will be featured in a special section of the April/May issue of Storytelling Magazine.
On Wednesday, May 8 at 7 pm, I'll be presenting my program Remember When: Stories and Songs of World War II at Clifton Park Halfmoon Library. I'll be sharing the unpublished stories from World War II of several Clifton Park residents, while weaving together cumulative details of life on the front lines and here at home to capture an era for her audience. Join me in singing the songs from that era as we all remember when.
On Monday, July 8 at 4 pm, I'll be sharing stories of Julia Child: Cook and Nifty Wench at Wiawaka. Julia Child made French cooking accessible to American cooks, was the first person on PBS to win an Emmy, and enjoyed a passionate marriage. Come hear how this Smith graduate worked for the OSS during World War II, married a sophisticated man 6" shorter than herself, and taught millions everything they needed to know to produce delicious meals. Dinner following my presentation will be inspired by some Julia Child recipes.
Thanks for reading this issue. I’ll be sending you some more story highlights in a few months.
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Copyright 2013 by Kathryn Eike Dudding. All Rights Reserved.
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