New Orleans has garnered its place in history by making great strides to overcome the oppression of slavery and discrimination.
Nevertheless, such milestones are not accomplished without the efforts of brave citizens who choose to pursue justice and equality in the face of adversity. One such person is the late Rosa Freeman Keller.
Rosa served the city of New Orleans independently as well as a member of the Junior League of New Orleans (JLNO). In 1968, JLNO bestowed upon her the honor of Sustainer of the Year. Today, the League honors Rosa as one of its most revered pioneers in the history of JLNO.
The daughter of acclaimed New Orleans businessman A.B. Freeman and wife of Charles Keller, Jr., a successful engineer and businessman, Rosa is best known for her social activism and contributions to the upward mobility of African Americans. Rosa devoted nearly 40 years of her life to supporting the equality and progression of African Americans through various pursuits including, but not limited to, affordable housing and desegregation of public and private schools.
As we delve into historical accounts of desegregation – such as the first Black students to enroll into an all-White elementary or post-secondary school – we are presented with the names of the students or their parents listed as plaintiffs in a lawsuit. However, several non-Black persons worked diligently behind the scenes to make such efforts possible. Even after the United States Supreme Court ruled segregated schools were unconstitutional, many states resisted, and such resistance called for further action by concerned citizens. When Orleans Parish School Board threatened to close many of its schools, Rosa founded the Save Our Schools initiative. Save Our Schools was an effort to keep schools open despite projected closures as resistant citizens decided to keep their children at home rather than send them to school with Black students.
Rosa could have spent the best years of her life as a lady of leisure, enjoying her family’s wealth. Instead, she fought tirelessly to integrate public spaces and ascertain equality in education. When Rosa became aware of Tulane University’s refusal to admit two African Americans who had recently graduated from Dillard University, Rosa pulled the funds she had been saving to purchase a fur coat and instead used them to finance a federal lawsuit that had been filed against Tulane.
Rosa was presented with several awards throughout her life, including the Lane Bryant award for community service. Rosa will be remembered as many things – wife, social activist, philanthropist and mother. Rosa’s daughter, Mary Keller Zervigon, shared the following cherished memories of her late mother.
“Our mother was definitely not like every other mother. In addition to her well-known accomplishments, she was also very active in the PTA at the school we attended and worked a number of years as room mother, at least one year for each of us. She was active in the support of ‘good government’ candidates she felt Louisiana badly needed. She had a gift for friendship and had many long-term friendships with people of all classes, races and ages.”
A lifetime of altruism rarely goes unnoticed. Rosa’s tireless efforts may have garnered her personal acclaim, but it is the impact she had on those around her that ultimately defines her spirit. Especially now, may her legacy inspire us to live our lives with the goal of selflessly improving the wellbeing of others.