Lucille Bridges, mother of civil rights trailblazer, dies at 86
By John Ismay
Lucille Commadore Bridges, who in 1960 broke through the segregated education system of the Deep South by enrolling her 6-year-old daughter Ruby in an all-white elementary school in New Orleans, and escorting her there during her first year of classes, died at her home in Uptown New Orleans on Tuesday. She was 86.
The cause was cancer, according to Ruby Bridges.
Lucille Bridges and her daughter braved a fusillade of abuse from white protesters as they walked up to the doors of the William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans on Nov. 14, 1960, under the escort of federal marshals, making good on the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional.
Bridges escorted her daughter to school every day for a year because of continuing protests, according to the National Women’s History Museum.
“She was very determined, and she took education very seriously,” Ruby Bridges, an author and activist, said in an interview on Wednesday. “I think it was because it was something that neither her nor my father was allowed to have. And ultimately that’s what she wanted for her kids — having a better life for them.”
Lucille Commadore was born in Tylertown, Mississippi, on Aug. 12, 1934. Her parents, Curtis Commadore and Amy Commadore (nee Jackson), were sharecroppers, and she stopped attending school after the eighth grade so that she could help them in the fields, Ruby Bridges said. Her mother worked as a housekeeper, and in 1953 she married Abon Bridges, a mechanic. The couple had eight children and separated in the late 1960s. Abon Bridges died in 1978.
In 1956, the family relocated from Mississippi to New Orleans because the Bridgeses wanted to give their children a chance at a better education than they had, Ruby Bridges said.
“We decided to leave so that we could make it better,” Lucille Bridges said in an interview in 2016 for the “Power of Children” exhibit at the Altharetta Yeargin Art Museum in Houston. “I wanted it better for my kids than it was for us.”
In 1960, 165 Black children took a test for admission to the all-white William Frantz Elementary School, Lucille Bridges said, and her daughter Ruby was among only five who passed the exam. She and her husband met with the school district superintendent before Ruby began classes. The superintendent explained that, as religious people, they should pray, because things were about to get much worse, she recalled.
When she and Ruby arrived at the school for Ruby’s first day of school, she recalled, there were large numbers of federal marshals and protesters present. Some of the protesters screamed, “Two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate,” and hurled eggs and tomatoes at Bridges and her daughter, she said. But the marshals prevented them from being struck.
Ruby Bridges said Wednesday that she could not recall her mother and father telling her anything other than that she would be going to a new school. “They didn’t try to explain to me what I was about to venture into,” she said. “But I just think that’s because it would be hard for any parent to prepare their kids to walk into an environment like that, so they didn’t try.”
Lucille Bridges recalled in the 2016 interview that two city police officers blocked their path as she tried to escort her daughter through the school doors, saying they could not come in. She remembered two of the marshals replying, “The United States president said we can.”
The marshals who took Ruby to and from school were heavily armed, keeping a machine gun in the car they drove. “And that’s the way we lived it for a whole year,” Lucille Bridges said.
The NAACP supported Lucille and Abon Bridges for several years because they lost their jobs when the integration of the school made headlines, and friends in their all-Black neighborhood took turns guarding their home.
Lucille Bridges, who enjoyed gardening, moved from New Orleans to Houston because of Hurricane Katrina, her daughter said. She remained in Houston for access to better health care and returned to New Orleans about five years ago.
Later in life, Bridges did not harbor ill will against the protesters. “All those people calling us names, you just have to charge that to their ignorance and just go on,” she said. “Be yourself, and God will bring you through.”
Lucille Bridges is survived by six children, numerous grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
“Study, listen to what their teachers tell them, and their mothers and fathers,” Lucille Bridges advised children during the 2016 interview. “After they get their education, they can be any person they wanted to be: doctors, lawyers or anything. But you have to have that education, and I would love for them to just listen to my story so they can know how hard it was for my kids to go to school.”