The Content of Her Character (Two)

Copyright. Freedom March of Art. All Rights Reserved.

I was not long past posting last week’s blog about the reallife, and still living Civil Rights heroine, Ruby Bridges, when it dawned on me that I had left out the co-star in that drama. I am no engineer, but I do believe that if a bridge is going to be built, work needs to happen from both sides of the divide. Thank God, for that was the case with the story that unfolded in the 1960 Louisiana school that 6-year-old, Ruby, so boldly entered for a solid year escorted by federal marshals. There was someone working from the other side.

That other character was her equally bold first grade teacher, Barbara Henry. Mrs Henry had been just recently married  and transplanted to Louisiana, when she received a telephone call offering her a teaching job. Aware of the issues and current climate of her new home town, she inquired if this was one of the schools being desegregated. Upon being told yes, she was further asked if it would make a difference in her response. She replied that it didn’t. That response set Barbara apart from all the other teachers of the 500 students who all exited Frantz Elementary school the day Ruby and her mother entered.

Without question, Ruby Bridges stands a heroine today, because of the answer to prayers she offered up along with her humble parents who, with no formal education or sophisticated preparation, parented their young daughter through a full year of psychological assault, crossing bitter racial picket lines each school day. But the rest of the story, is attested to by Ruby herself. Asked one day by a visiting psychiatrist, whose heart was moved for her mental well-being, why she would pray for the angry mobs, she reported, “I knew that once I got past those angry people, I was going to have a great day.” She had that hope as an anchor to her innocent resolve because of the dedication of teacher, Barbara Henry,  to make sure that her lone student received all she could provide of a full first grade education, under such extreme circumstances. Mrs. Henry was not only Ruby’s teacher but also her only classmate, friend, and even play mate for all of her first grade year. Oh, and did I forget to mention? Barbara Henry is white.

A Jamaican folk song that has increased in significance to me over the years, refrains with the  query “…ah how yuh come over di broad dutty ( dirty) water ?” When the circumstances of life come at you like a Jamaican mountain river in full spate after a tropical storm you need a bridge, that is, if you plan to ‘come over’. When America stood on the flooded banks of  the river of racial segregation in 1960, there were brave souls on both sides, who wanted to be a part of the way over. Providentially prepared by her own real education in multi-ethnic classrooms and by her travels teaching for the Navy, Barbara Henry demonstrated the best of what used to be called ‘the noble profession’. She not only taught Ruby what first graders should learn of the three ‘r’s, she walked with her across those waters, building a bridge that many cavalierly traverse today. Ruby and Barbara, the libation of your courageous lives make that chapter of our American story holy ground.

See parts of Barbara’s story in the links below.

Towards a purposeful observance of Black History month.

Denise Stair-Armstrong 02/06/17


Teaching Ruby Bridges (Boston Globe article)

 The Content Of Her Character 

Viewing the YouTube post below of this poised middle-aged African-American woman calmly delivering a TED Talk  in front of a Norman Rockwell painting of herself, supplied me a Modern day heroine to hold up before my children and a commitment to add ‘meet Ruby Bridges in person’ to my bucket list. If the painting titled ‘The Problem We All Live With’ does not bring you to tears, then the photograph of the real event should and should also motivate us all to join her mission to make sure our children learn to judge real character by learning real history in the best environment in the times we all live in.

The sweet metaphor suggested by Ruby’s name is not lost on me- Though I can only guess at where she stands with regard to profession of faith, I do still take the liberty of believing that this woman, as a little girl, was held together by the Divine Grace of the Ruby-Red Cross of Our Christ. And though her parents’ marriage did not survive this dreadful stormy trial, this fiery gem of a lady is a trophy of God’s grace to our nation.

*Interestingly, a 2010 NPR interview of Ruby repeatedly referred to the painting as ‘The Times We All Live In’. Not sure why. Also, Barak Obama, had it displayed in the White House after meeting her, during his presidency. I wonder which title he associated it with and how that influenced his handling of racial matters during his administration. Food for thought for Bridge-builders.

Ruby Bridges 2010 NPR Interview

Towards a purposeful observance of Black History Month, Denise

Monument By Crater Road

Sitting in our family van, waiting on my husband at the mechanics, in a city with bad memories involving craters, tunnels and noble dead soldiers, I chose to lift my eyes.

I saw not mountains but tree tops — city pines determinedly spreading their boughs and asserting their presence over the trash-filled underbrush of roadside lots. Crowded together amidst the pollution and neglected crush of aged urban habitation, they stood. The darkness of their trunks, mixed with the indistinct brown of their lower dying branches, in dreary confederacy with the gray of arid asphalt and old concrete, connoted burnt remains.

But half-way up those time scarred trunks, what vibrant courage held my gaze! Healthy, verdant branches, like 5,500 arms holding aloft, from earth’s offal strewn on broken pavements, bustled skirts in forest-green needles rose.

Their elegant motion swept my eyes up to their tippy tops, reminding me of days of my childhood when gazing out of my aunt’s bedroom window at dawn, I thought I caught the first zephyrs of morning as they stirred the highest leaves of the ackee trees overhanging the side yard. I grew to love that time of day, to love the promise of life at the top of the tallest trees at dawn – the apices of morning.

The resolve and dignity of those city pines, Phoenix-like in their location and liberated stance, against corrupted natures’ claims, inspired.

The truth and nostalgia they evoked, in union with hope and gratitude, held my gaze and demanded a true-blue offering, born of sweeter memories, to the noble dead I was tempted to forget. So hilt and blade saluting, in the crater city, I wrote:

(Monument by Crater Road)

Vibrant Fingers

Reaching high

Needles pointing

To the sky

Tracing rainbows

Cupping rain

Catch the dawn-light’s

Golden stain

Glorious tree tops

Tender leaves

Gently shiver

Touched by breeze

Stirred by passing

Of His train

Cheer night’s yielding

To His reign

Keep unsheathing

Heaven’s Knife

Pierce the heart

Release the life.


Denise Stair-Armstrong



Historical Note:  The “Battle of the Crater”, as it has become known, occurred in Petersburg, Virginia on July 30, 1864.  It took place towards the end of the American Civil War and was a failed effort by Union soldiers from the North to end the siege of Petersburg.  5,500 Union soldiers died in this battle.