By Kip Tabb | Outer Banks Voice on December 3, 2022
For Outer Banks artist James Melvin, the opportunity to paint a portrait of civil right icon Ruby Bridges was a chance to pay tribute to a personal hero and his own heritage.
When Ruby Bridges was six years old, she was the lone Black child allowed to attend William Frantz School in New Orleans in 1960. She had to be escorted to school by US Federal Marshals to protect her from a mob of White parents and city residents screaming obscenities at her. She sat in class alone with her first-grade teacher because parents would not allow their children in a classroom with her.
As she has recounted a number of times, Ruby Bridges first thought the jeering crowd outside the school was a part of Mardi Gras celebrations. But over time, the isolation and loneliness of that first year in school led to nightmares and fears.
Yet she persevered, went on to college and raised a family. She has written books for children about her experiences and founded the Ruby Bridges Foundation that works to achieve equal opportunity and integration in schools.
It is that indomitable spirit that Melvin found compelling in painting her portrait and meeting her. “There was just an awesomeness of spirit,” he said, adding that her early experiences seemed to give her a perspective and determination that shaped her life.
Attempting to keep children of color segregated in the New Orleans school system, school officials created a test so difficult for entry to a white school that almost no child could pass it. But Ruby did pass it, and she never gave up.
“They wouldn’t let her go and she wouldn’t let it go,” Melvin said.
Melvin heard that Bridges was on the Outer Banks in the summer of 2021 from fellow Dare Arts Board Member Miles Daniels. The painting of Bridges, which was based on a photograph of her that Daniels took, struck a chord within Melvin.
“I was so moved when Miles Daniels showed that photo he had taken of her,” he said. “I thought about all the things that she went through, some trauma that a kid had to face trying to get the education and dealing with other people’s bad behavior and to show good behavior.”
As an artist, Melvin did take some creative license with the setting of his portrait. “The pose she had looking at the ocean, actually she was looking at a golf course, but I put her on the ocean,” he said. Asked how long it took to create the work, Melvin hesitates, and notes that he did not work on it full time as he was painting it. “Maybe about two months, I guess because I worked on it off and on between other works and [art] shows,” he said.
Now completed, the work will have a home at the Keeper Richard Etheridge Lobby, the second-floor lobby at the new College of the Albemarle (COA) campus building in Manteo. It is an appropriate location, Dean of the Manteo campus Tim Sweeney said at the Dec. public showing of the painting at its new home, noting the significance of Keeper Etheridge and the mission of the college to educate their students about the past.
It was a theme that Dr. Jack Bagwell, President of COA, also addressed.
“So many opportunities for the future are going to happen right here,” he said. “But we also want to make sure we pay honor and tribute to the past and what people have endured and overcome to allow us to be here and to allow our students to be here.”
Although the painting will have a home at COA, tentative plans call for it to be on exhibit at a number of locations throughout Dare County and Corolla.
“We’re gonna house it,” Dean Sweeney said. “But we’re going to have the portrait travel around Dare County [and] Corolla. Ruby wanted to share it.”