This is Part II in a series on Segregation.
Much of the South was slow to comply with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision. On September 4, 1957 in Little Rock, Arkansas nine African American students wanted to start their first day at Central High School. Standing in their way was Governor Orval Faubus who ordered the Arkansas National Guard to surround Central and block the students from entering the building, claiming he feared riots and bloodshed at the school and his directive was to protect the students.
With steadfast determination, the nine students, who became known as the Little Rock Nine, showed up for school every day but were turned away. It wasn’t until President Dwight D. Eisenhower intervened and convinced Faubus to dismiss the guards and allow the students entry into the school that Faubus removed the guards but replaced them with local police. The next day, riots broke out at Central when the nine students tried to gain entrance to the building. Little Rock Congressman Brooks Hays and Mayor Woodrow Mann sent a telegram to Washington asking for help. Eisenhower wanted to avoid a bloody confrontation in Arkansas. Following receipt of the telegram, he initiated Executive Order 10730, whereby he placed the Arkansas National Guard under Federal control and sent 1,000 U.S. Army paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division to assist them in restoring order in Little Rock (http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/content/desegregation-doc.html). This was September 24th, nearly three weeks after school had begun, and three years after the Brown decision.
After one year of integration, Governor Faubus closed all four of Little Rock public high schools pending a vote from the citizens to decide whether or not to prevent African Americans from attending the school. The United States Supreme Court declared Faubus’ action illegal and the public schools reopened August 1959. The nine students returned to Central where they were exposed to physical and emotional abuse. Only one of the original nine students graduated from Central High School (http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/central-high-school-integration).
Most notable of the stories similar to Little Rock is the story of Ruby Bridges. On November 14, 1960 six-year-old Ruby, accompanied by her mother and armed federal marshals, entered William Frantz Public School (WFPS) in New Orleans, Louisiana. The front of the school was barricaded, which kept protesters out but did nothing to protect Ruby and her mom from the shouts of hate and death threats.
I was one of just a few black children to pass the school board test, and I had been chosen to attend one of the white schools, William Frantz Public School. They said it was a better school and closer to my home than the one I had been attending. They said I had the right to go to the closest school in my district. They said going to William Frantz would help me, my brothers, my sister, and other black children in the future. We would receive a better education, which would give us better opportunities as adults. (Bridges, 1999, P. 12).
On the same day Bridges gained entrance at WFPS, and also surrounded by federal marshals, Leona Tate, Tessie Prevost and Gail Etienne fought for entrance into McDonogh 19. These girls became known as the McDonogh 3. They faced the same scrutiny as Bridges, with protestors outside.
The Orleans Parish School board (OPSB) designated only two white schools for integration- Frantz and McDonogh 19. Located in the neglected ninth ward, these schools were in generally poor neighborhoods with lower class and white working class families in housing projects. “The ninth ward was always the last to get street lights, the last to get paved streets and the last to receive the myriad other city services which other sections were able to obtain more easily” ( Middleton, 2011, p. 51).
There was some speculation that WFPS was chosen as one of the integrated schools because it was thought that “black children would be better off in schools with lower test scores, so that ‘they would not feel inferior.’ Others have speculated that the working-class 9th Ward neighborhood had much less political sway than other parts of town and so was an easier choice for School Board members, who were less likely to have connections there. (Reckdahl, 2010).
The opposition to Bridges attending William Frantz went through Governor Jimmie Davis’ office who fully supported segregationists. Similar to Governor Faubus in Arkansas, Davis also said he would close all the public schools rather than see them integrated. Federal District Court Judge J. Skelly Wright struck down the anti-integration laws, allowing for integration to proceed.
In a last minute effort to stave off desegregation, Louisiana declared a school holiday for November 14, 1960. Despite the governor’s threat “to jail him if he opened schools” and extreme pressure from constituents, school Board President Lloyd Rittiner refused to close the New Orleans Parish Schools (Rittiner as quoted in Reckdahl, 2010). WFPS would opened its doors to Bridges and opened itself to the scrutiny of the world.
US Marshals, sent to ensure the implementation of the desegregation plan, planned to escort Bridges to WFPS. US Marshals anticipated fewer protesters at WFPS than at McDonogh, but prepared for a response if the situation deteriorated. The US Marshals, carrying sidearms in their suit jackets, arranged for a number of US deputies as well as local and state officers to be positioned in the neighborhood surrounding WFPS. When they arrived at the school with Bridge on the 14th, they encountered a crowd of approximately 1000 people, much larger than anticipated. Deputies Gilbert Bryant and Floyd Park “enveloped the girl and entered Frantz” (Turks, 2016, p. 41).
On the first day, Ruby sat in the office with her mom until 3:00 pm and went home. The second day she met her teacher, Mrs. Barbara Henry who taught Ruby for the rest of the year. The riots continued for some time in New Orleans, while Ruby showed up each day to school and Mrs. Henry taught her, ate lunch with her, and played in the classroom with her as Ruby was not allowed to leave the room to go to the lunchroom or the playground with the other children. Her bravery and determination to protect Ruby were admirable. “I didn’t want to allow hate to enter her life in any way to diminish her beautiful spirit” (Barbara Henry, as cited in Bridges, 1999, p. 52).
Though I did not know it then, nor would I come to realize it for many years, what transpired in the fall of 1960 in New Orleans would forever change my life and help shape a nation. When I think back on that time and all that has occurred since, I realize a lot has changed. I also know there is much more to be done. That fateful walk to school began a journey, and we all must work together to continue moving forward (Bridges, 2013).
The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
These are my reflections for today.
Bridges, R. (1999, p. 12). Through My Eyes. New York: Scholastic Press.
Turk, D. (2016). Forging the star: The official modern history of the US Marshals Service. University of North Texas Press, Denton: TX.