When Ruby Bridges walked up the steps of her new school on Nov. 14, 1960, she had no idea what to expect from her teacher, Barbara Henry. “I remember the first day meeting her, she looked exactly like the mob outside the classroom,” Bridges toldWBUR in a 2020 interview. But the teachers who shared the mob’s hostility to integration had all refused to teach her. “Teachers actually quit their jobs because they didn’t want to teach Black kids.”
Henry had a different view. She grew up in Boston, where she had studied with Black teachers and students at a private school now known as Boston Latin Academy. Shortly before coming to New Orleans, she had recently taught on an Air Force base in Dreux, France, where classrooms were integrated. When the New Orleans superintendent called to offer her a position teaching first grade, two days before Bridges was to arrive, she eagerly accepted.
Imagine both their surprise when they arrived at school and had to face the angry mob. Bridges spent her first day in the principal’s office, watching angry white parents take their children home. The same day, Henry was sent home and told she would meet Bridges the next day. Henry spent the remainder of that year creating a warm, intellectually challenging space for her only student. “She cared about me, she made school fun, and ultimately I felt safe in that classroom,” Bridges said in 2020.
In 1996, Bridges and Henry were reunited on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Afterwards, they gave talks together, with Bridges and her story at the center, and Henry playing a supporting role.