.On November 14, 2021, the board of directors gathered remotely with Barbara Henry and Ruby Bridges to kick off the first award cycle in her honor. Below is a transcription of what Barbara shared with the board that day.
Thank you all for granting me this high honor of having my name linked to and prefacing the merited recognition you have created and designed for the courageous and ever-so-worthy pursuits for furthering social justice: the Barbara Henry Courage In Teaching Award.
I like to think of Courage as that Gateway quality of character, the key to allowing for an array of empowering actions to follow. Ruby and I—with Courage to go forth—took those first steps for Right and Duty that allowed for endless blessings to follow.
I love the goal of this award. I've long been in awe of the transformative understandings teachers have helped to be realized among their students when they accept and respect their shared qualities—and their enriching differences. I witness these settings each and every time I visit classrooms to share my personalizations of a very different time and place: New Orleans, 1960. The extraordinary dichotomy is always so heartwarming and gratifying.
And then, I often reflect on my own school years in respect to the influence teachers had during my junior and high school years in a large Boston Public School. Rather like today's magnet school, we students represented a micro version of the city in our coming from very different racial, ethnic and cultural settings. Here, from the esteemed faculty all, the respect and sense of worth shown to us irrespective of our color, class or community allowed us to appreciate our shared and empowering commonalities amidst our diversity. In a world where we internalized the ethos of "Duty First, Honor Always, Self Last", we left at graduation with a confidence that we could meet whatever adventure awaited.
I believe it was that enriching, multi-racial, ethnic and cultural world and its ethos that allowed me the confidence and ultimately the courage to successfully meet the challenges of New Orleans in 1960.
Two favorite quotes seem relevant: Henry Adams said, "Teachers affect eternity; he can never tell where his influence ends," and Charles Sumner (Boston's passionate abolitionist) proclaimed, "Prejudice is sure to exist where people do not know each other." Each quote has lived on to play a role in New Orleans, and to a degree, to the present.
In schools across the country when January and February arrives and Civil Rights studies take prominence, so too does the Ruby Bridges Story with its many learnings and fresh perspectives. From first grade—when teachers introduce the story of Ruby Bridges—these children so sensitive to feelings of exclusion and hurt quickly feel at one with their peer, Ruby. I believe a seed of love for and shared identity with Ruby and her story owns a little spot in their hearts and never leaves. As students grow, so too, does the story with them.
The story of New Orleans in 1960 opens on different settings. Teachers had a responsibility to guide students to learn of the century-long Civil Rights journey to further that equality before the law, the justice declared in the 14th amendment—which had not yet happened. The journey continued until the injustice of racial segregation in public schools across our nation ended in 1954. What a sweet declaration it was. Yet, it wasn't until 1960 that New Orleans was secured, and thus the end of racially segregated public schools.
Courage and commitment by Ruby's and my presence at The William Frantz School that year helped to fulfill the century-long journey of the NAACP and all Civil Rights Champions to desegregate and symbolically end racially segregated public schools, not only in Louisiana, but in every state. So it's been the role of America's teachers to further those learnings and increase the widespread understanding of challenges and victories for justice and equality before the law.
Until there is an owned and shared understanding of our past and a shared vision for the future—coupled together—true social justice cannot be realized. How enormous and important are teachers, for they guide our students and make our nation more whole by weaving the threads of equality and justice into their classrooms and our national tapestry.
Teaching is a sacred profession, rich in rewards, personally and for our nation. Teachers are transformative figures, creating their own oases of love and learning. How powerful and gratifying can that be! And yet presently, some of those strong threads are beginning to fray. Major challenges anew are appearing for teachers—challenges to preserving and furthering the achievements of the past. I submit the story of the Desegregation in New Orleans as one example of a template for Civil Rights and Social Justice studies, for future thinking and strategies to achieve like goals.
Barbara Tuchman said that books and stories are humanity in print, windows on the world, lighthouses in the sea of time, and engines of change. I believe all of those are true.
It seems the story of New Orleans in the fullness of its legal, political and cultural dimensions meets every point referenced; particularly as an engine of change. With challenges not unlike those experienced throughout a Century long journey for justice—once again, I believe the same heroic courage and commitment given then will be found. Creative, uplifting and inspiring actions will result. No one group is more universally influential than educators. Our shared humanity longs for being made whole again. May a more-nearly-perfect union be realized anew.
For your grand gift—to be so identified with the high purpose of the continuing noble pursuits that will be embodied in The Barbara Henry Courage in Teaching Award—my heartfelt appreciation.