Ruby Bridges, who at 6 years old was the first Black child to enroll at a previously all-white school in New Orleans in 1960, received her own statewide day of recognition because of the activism that began in a South San Francisco fifth grade classroom. 

“It’s a culmination of more than three years’ worth of teaching and learning and campaigning,” said Deborah Carlino, the Martin Elementary School teacher whose fifth graders in 2017 were inspired by Bridges’ story to petition for the day of recognition.

The youth-led effort has already gained significant local traction, with Nov. 14 officially named Ruby Bridges Walk to School Day countywide in 2019. Last year, 55 schools across seven states participated, and the day was approved for statewide recognition through a resolution authored by state Sen. Josh Becker, D-San Mateo. The state Senate passed Becker’s resolution Friday, Sept. 10, with an unanimous, bipartisan vote.

“The fifth-graders taught by Deborah Carlino at Martin Elementary School in my district have taken Ruby’s legacy to heart. They are working to gain widespread and increasing recognition for Ruby, who when she was just 6 years old walked to school day after day amid angry mobs spewing racial epithets and other hate speech. I am proud to have helped the fifth-graders of Martin Elementary School advance their campaign,” Becker said in a prepared statement.

Carlino, who encourages her students each year to pick an issue on which to focus their efforts to create change, said it all started after one of her students asked if Bridges had her own day.

“That was the first time I ever heard about her,” said Madeline Popielak, the student, now a sophomore at South San Francisco High School, who posed the question. “It was eye opening, what happened when she helped integrate the schools. I thought that she deserves a day of recognition to herself, she deserves to be honored for what she did.”

Nov. 14 is the day Bridges first entered the previously all-white William Frantz Elementary School, guarded by U.S. marshals as white protesters hurled racial slurs at the first grader and her mother. 

Bridges, the only Black student to attend the school that year, had to be taught by herself in a classroom by the lone teacher who agreed to teach Black students at the time. Despite threats to poison her food and her family being ousted from their jobs, Bridges did not miss a single day of school that year. 

Carlino recalls students were angry when they learned there was not yet a day honoring Bridges. 

“I said, ‘so what are you going to do about it?’” Carlino said. “They said they wanted to go to the president, I told them there’s a process, you can’t just do that.”

Carlino helped students gather more than 1,000 signatures in support of creating the day of recognition, which were presented to the school board, and later city and county.

“For us to get to meetings, it’s not easy, it’s not like their parents just drive them to these places, most of my parents work two or three jobs, these kids had to figure it out,” Carlino said. “We’re a Title 1 school, most of my kids — they don’t have a silver spoon in their mouth.”

A Title 1 school receives federal money to support its low-income students.

Carlino said since her class in 2017, most of her students have elected to focus on furthering recognition for Bridges, a task that at times has been an exercise in tolerance as well as civics.

“Some [students] would come back and they were shocked because people would say ‘no I’m not signing that, we don’t need another Black day,’” said Carlino, who said she teaches students that everyone has a right to their opinion.

Through a partnership with AAA, Carlino and some of her students were able to meet Bridges in Sacramento last year, and pandemic permitting, Bridges is planning on visiting Martin Elementary School, maybe on her day.

“You meet her, and she’s a history book,” Carlino said. “She’s very gracious, she’s someone who’s strong in a kind way.”

Eighteen state senators from both sides of the aisle signed onto Senate Resolution 59 as co-authors.

“I’m deeply honored to participate in this impressive effort by Martin Elementary School and I thank the coauthors and all our Senate colleagues for their support,” Becker said. “I look forward to celebrating the state’s first observance of Ruby Bridges Walk to School Day in November.”

Go to .tinyurl.com/RubyBridgesWalk for more information or to get involved.

corey@smdailyjournal.com

(650) 344-5200, ext. 105

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