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Black History Month: Performance Teaches Haine Elementary Students About Ruby Bridges

Mimi Washington starred as the historical figure in Tuesday's special lesson for first-grade students.

Just like the historical character she portrayed, 11-year-old Mimi Washington had to summon her courage to tackle the role of Ruby Bridges.

“I was very excited and scared,” she said. "It’s a pretty big role, and she did a lot of brave things that I don’t know if I’d be able to do.”

In 1960, Bridges was the first black child to attend an all-white New Orleans elementary school after a court-ordered desegregation. Mimi, a sixth-grader at St. Edmund’s Academy in Squirrel Hill who wants to be an actress when she grows up, performed Tuesday in front of a crowd of first-grade students at Haine Elementary School.

“I was nervous at first, but then I got used to it, she said.

The performance was part of a lesson for students during February’s black history month. Jill Wadsworth, a local actress, director and acting instructor, wrote Tuesday’s play based on the children’s book The Story of Ruby Bridges, which librarian Jacki Larson read to first-graders earlier in the school year.

“It just ties into black history month, and it gives them a connection to literature,” Larson said of the performance.

The play used simple terms to tell of the bravery Bridges showed as she calmly faced angry mobs of parents who refused to send their children to school with her because she was black. Bridges, then in first-grade, often would learn her lessons in an empty classroom.

By the time she entered second grade, the mobs dispersed and parents began sending their children to school again. Wadsworth, whose granddaughter, Tess Kyyashko, is a first-grader at the school, played Bridges’ teacher in Tuesday’s performance.

When the story ended, the first-graders had a question and answer session with Mimi where they asked her what it was like to be an actress and what she thought about Bridges. Mimi also answered questioned about her uniform—which is what she wears as a St. Edmunds student—and her glasses, which she told curious students were her own.

Wadsworth, who is Mimi’s acting coach, said her student’s performance impressed her. Mimi’s mother, Ebony Washington, also had a small role in the play.

“I think [Mimi is] amazing,” Washington said. “We’re always so proud of her, and she’s so driven.”

School principal Michelle Ellis said the lesson—and the performance that went with it—was a great educational opportunity for students.

“It’s important for them to see where we’ve been in history and how we’ve grown,” she said.  

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