Steinbeck's Rendezvous With Racism

Saturday, 06 November 2010 02:03 AM Written by 

NEW ORLEANS --  William Frantz Elementary

Remember this
Norman Rockwell painting?rubybridges_rockwell

It was called "The Problem We All Live With." It was based on historical events that occurred at William Frantz Elementary school on North Galvez Street 50 Novembers ago, when the New Orleans public schools were first integrated.

The little girl is Ruby Bridges. The men are federal marshals. Ruby was the first black child to attend the all-white New Orleans schools.

The ugly racial circus that formed each morning in front of the neighborhood school in  New Orleans made national headlines for months. It also attracted the attention of John Steinbeck, who was in Amarillo on his "Travels With Charley" trip and still had to drive home to Long Island.

As he explains in "Charley," Steinbeck went to North Galvez Street in early December of 1960 because he wanted to observe the "Cheerleaders."

They were the white bigoted mothers who stood across the street from the sidewalk Ruby so innocently walked each morning and yelled obscenities at the few white parents who did not "honor" the white boycott of the school.

In his handwritten manuscript, Steinbeck wrote exactly what kind of foul things he heard the women shout. It couldn't be printed in a book in 1960, and he knew it. And it can't be revealed today in this blog or anything this side of Hustler.

Ruby Bridges' name did not become public knowledge until years later.

Here, in a nicely written article by New Orleans Times-Picayune writer Chris Rose, is her story from start to finish, from innocent child to motivational speaker who travels the country talking to school kids about the lessons she learned from her experience.

Last night I plugged the address of the William Frantz school into my GPS and let it guide me to the school's shabby-to-desolate New Orleans neighborhood.

I don't know what neighborhood it is yet, but at night it looked like parts of it might have been underwater not too long ago.


The stout brick school that made history in 1960 is closed, locked, boarded up and surrounded by a tall fence today. It's one of the many victims of Katrina -- the "storm" it's simply called -- that has never recovered.

Bridges and others are trying to reopen Frantz as a charter school. Meanwhile, ironies abound.

Some of the sidewalks and the school steps Ruby walked into history on are blocked today by fences topped with barbed wire -- protected not from angry white racists but from the school's own neighborhood.DSC_0923_copy


Note: Here is the note I sent to the person who wrote the comment below:

Thanks for the note. I don't have any sympathy for them (the mothers). They were racist pigs -- the Cheerleaders. They were also largely morons. They foresaw nothing. Just because integration had its obvious downsides/failures doesn't mean they were right about anything or that their primitive hate was any less irrational or more justified.

bill s

To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.