SIOUX CITY -- Huddled around a wooden cabinet at the Sioux City Public Museum that holds a box of crayons, a sandwich and a paste jar, Abril Cortez, a fifth-grader from Storm Lake, Iowa, lamented that the situation that Ruby Bridges faced in New Orleans in 1960 was "sad."
Bridges, the first African American student to integrate an elementary school in the South, stopped eating her lunches and began tossing her sandwiches in a classroom cabinet and disposing of her milk in a paste jar. Initially, a psychiatrist who offered to help the 6-year-old thought she was behaving this way because she was scared. A woman had threatened to poison Bridges. But Bridges revealed that she actually hid her lunches in hopes that she would be allowed to eat with the other children in the cafeteria.
"It was quite a while until a custodian figured out that she was doing that," said Matt Anderson, curator of history for the museum. "It was just kind of a way she coped with her situation."
The stories of Bridges, Anne Frank and Ryan White are featured in "The Power of Children: Making a Difference," a program of ExhibitsUSA, a national division of Mid-America Arts Alliance and The National Endowment for the Arts, which is now on display through Jan. 6 at the museum.
Anderson said visitors could spend a couple hours interacting with the 3,000-square-foot exhibition, which is the largest ever to appear at the museum. The exhibition is set up chronologically with rooms for each child. Interactive video and audio features are scattered among photographs and artifacts.
An interior yellow space mimics the room Anne Frank and her family hid in in Amsterdam during World War II. An antique radio and books are displayed on a red shelf. Open the cover of one of the books to learn that Frank received a big book of Greek and Roman mythology -- her favorite subject -- for her birthday. A replica of her diary is also featured.
"The most famous thing with Anne is her diary that she got for her 13th birthday," Anderson said. That diary was used to record the family's experiences in hiding and went on to become one of the most widely read nonfiction books in history.
Rosi Calderon, a fifth-grader from Storm Lake, found Ryan White's story most compelling of the three. She was surprised to open a blue locker scratched with the message "Go Home!" to hear a voice say "Watch out! There he is."
"He was bullied and people kept writing on his locker," she said of White.
White, a teenager from Kokomo, Indiana, who had hemophilia, contracted HIV from an infected blood transfusion. After the diagnosis, a school superintendent barred him from attending classes, but after winning a lengthy court case, he was allowed to return to his middle school. White died in 1990, a month before his high school graduation.
In today's social and political environment, Anderson said he thinks Bridges' story particularly stands out.
"Race relations are a constant in American history," he said. "Undoubtedly, progress has been made in that area, but we're always reminded that under the surface, there's that tension, whether it's with a specific minority community or just immigration in general. That's something that goes throughout our history from the very moment that our country was founded."