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  1. Visual Arts

Civil rights icon Ruby Bridges Hall discusses Norman Rockwell's famous painting

Ruby Bridges became a civil rights icon when she was 6. Yet she didn't realize it for decades.

The world knows her as the little girl in Norman Rockwell's famous 1963 painting, The Problem We All Live With, a black child being escorted to a white New Orleans school by federal marshals.

The work is part of "American Chronicles: the Art of Norman Rockwell," an exhibition at the Tampa Museum of Art. Bridges Hall (her married name) will lecture there on Tuesday, recounting her memories of that time and how those events have shaped her life.

In an hourlong interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Bridges Hall discussed things she has seldom talked about, from the mysterious donor of her prim dresses to the slow awareness of her cultural significance.

Her story began in 1960, when court-ordered integration of New Orleans' schools was being organized and the NAACP asked for volunteers. Her mother, who thought it would give the little girl a better chance at life, applied.

"Too many families volunteered," Bridges Hall said, so a test was administered to identify the brightest applicants.

"It was a very hard test," said Bridges Hall, now 60. "Only six of us passed it and three each were assigned to two schools. The two that were supposed to go with me to William Frantz (Elementary School) dropped out, so I went by myself."

The first day, a crowd gathered, shouting and throwing things. She thought it was a Mardi Gras celebration.

When she entered the school, every other child was removed by parents. Teachers refused to have her in their classrooms. Only one, Barbara Henry from Boston, agreed. Children gradually came back, but for most of that first year, Ruby and her teacher were alone in a classroom. The daily threats and protests continued.

"A lot of my strength came from my upbringing," she said. "I think that's what all of us African-Americans fell back on; the church was a huge part of the community."

Another kind of support came from psychiatrist Robert Coles. He was an Air Force captain stationed outside of Biloxi, Miss., visiting New Orleans when "he stumbled on this crowd scene outside the school," she said. He learned why they were there and volunteered to counsel her. He later became a Harvard professor and prolific author of books including The Story of Ruby Bridges.

A constant in the photographs taken of her is her immaculate clothing: lovely dresses, white socks, Mary Jane shoes. Her parents, who worked as sharecroppers, didn't buy them.

"We were very poor and my parents never could have afforded those clothes," Bridges Hall said. "I never knew where those clothes came from."

Many years later, a woman approached her at a gathering and introduced herself as a relative of Dr. Coles.

"She told me she sent them. That's how I got the clothing I wore."

While Ruby Bridges was becoming one of the youngest members of the civil rights movement in the South, Norman Rockwell was in Massachusetts, creating bucolic, heart-warming covers for the Saturday Evening Post. The conservative publication allowed people of color to be pictured only as servants. Rockwell, seeing change unfolding, chafed under the policy and in 1963 joined the more progressive Look magazine.

Bridges Hall doesn't know how he latched onto her as a symbol, and he never contacted her. But The Problem We All Live With was Rockwell's first illustration for Look, on Jan. 14, 1964, and a clear salvo at his former employers. In it, Ruby wears an immaculate white dress in sharp contrast to her dark skin. Her right hand is curled into a fist, emulating those of the marshals escorting her and she walks in lock-step with them. It drew controversy, of course, along with attention to the event that inspired it.

Rockwell referenced the press photographs for the painting but he conceived of its composition. He used a young neighbor as a model for the pose, said Jeremy Clowe, manager of media services at the Norman Rockwell Museum, which owns the work along with preparatory photographs and studies.

Ruby Bridges wasn't aware of the painting until the 1970s, when she was in her late teens and a reporter showed her a reproduction of it.

"It would not have been something people discussed in New Orleans," she said. "Nobody wanted to talk about those days. It was all swept under the carpet."

By then, Rockwell was slowing down. He would die in 1978 at 84.

Though she knew of its existence, Bridges Hall said she didn't realize the painting's significance until she was in her 40s.

She had worked for American Express for almost two decades and "it allowed me to travel abroad," she said. "It shaped me. I always wanted to live in other places." But her husband, a contractor, "would never leave New Orleans."

She had four sons and one was shot dead on a New Orleans street corner in 2005 in what she called "a senseless act of violence."

She had already lost her brother to a shooting in 1993 and had cared for his young daughters. They attended William Frantz, the same school she had integrated more than 30 years earlier. She began to volunteer there.

And after her son's death, she felt a higher calling, formed a foundation to foster tolerance and understanding and became a national inspirational speaker.

In 2004 she visited the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., to see the original for the first time, and she joined its board of trustees in 2005. She was instrumental in the painting's loan to the White House in 2011 where President Barack Obama had it installed just outside the Oval Office. She has been a guest on Oprah Winfrey's show twice.

That first walk to school destined her for a long journey in which "I wanted to use my experience to teach kids that racism has no place in hearts and minds," she said.

"I do think that some people are born as old souls," Bridges Hall said. "Wisdom is a gift but has nothing to do with age. That was probably the case with me."

Contact Lennie Bennett at lbennett@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8293.

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