An advocate for racial equality, Rosa Freeman Keller used her privilege as a white woman and member of New Orleans’ elite to integrate schools, transportation and libraries in the city.
Though Keller’s family became famous for its philanthropy, she wasn’t born into wealth, she wrote in her autobiography. Born Rosa Freeman in 1911, her father, A.B. Freeman, was a hard-working country man from Dalton, Georgia who left school at 16 to earn a living and support his widowed mother. He came to New Orleans in the early 1900s to take a job with the brand-new Louisiana Coca-Cola Bottling Co.
During Keller’s early childhood, her father was determined to make his family comfortable.
“Our father worked long hours and was sometimes away from home for days at a time, traveling the state in a buggy trying to sell his new, unknown product,” Keller wrote in her autobiography. But Freeman later found success at the bottling company, eventually becoming its president and majority owner.
Freeman — who served on the boards of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, the Sewerage and Water Board and Tulane University — was known for his service to the community. But the family’s generosity had its limits. New Orleans, like much of the country, was racially segregated when Keller was young, and the Freemans’ views on race largely mirrored those of others in their affluent white social circle, her grandson, Luis Zervigon, said in an interview with Verite.
It was only after Keller — who married Charles Keller in 1932 — joined the board of New Orleans’ Young Women’s Christian Association after her mother’s death in 1945 that she began to see the struggles that segregation placed on the Black community.
In 1947, Rosa and Charles Keller, along with Edgar Stern and his wife Edith, invested in the construction of Pontchartrain Park, one of the first subdivisions for Black middle-class families. She would go on to head the New Orleans chapter of the Urban League and was among the founders of the group Save Our Schools, which supported the integration of the New Orleans public school system. And as a member of the New Orleans Public Library board in the 1950s, she was instrumental in the effort to desegregate the city’s libraries. The library’s former Broad Branch, in the Broadmoor neighborhood, was renamed in her honor in 1999.
Among her most notable acts in her fight against racial inequality was a 1961 federal lawsuit she financed and helped coordinate against Tulane University over its policies against admitting Black students.
The two plaintiffs in the case were two Black students who had been denied admission into Tulane despite being academically qualified.
The lawsuit sparked controversy particularly because of the long-standing history between the university and the Freeman family. Her father served on the university’s board of administrators prior to his death in 1957. And at the time the suit was filed, her brother, Richard Freeman, as well as several “life long friends” served on the board.
She knew they would not be fond of the changes being made, but continued on knowing it was the right thing to do. “I was uncomfortable,” Keller wrote. “They would not like what I was doing, but it had to be done.”
Keller also had strong ties with Dillard University, a historically Black institution. She and two white professors from both universities developed a plan of action. They would have several well-qualified Black students write to Tulane seeking admission to the School of Social Work.
According to Keller, Pearlie Elloie and Barbara Guillory Thompson, both graduates of Dillard University, were “willing to become plaintiffs” and “eager to earn social work degrees.”
Federal Judge J. Skelly Wright ruled for the plaintiffs in March 1962 — ordering Tulane to admit the students. That decision was later overruled. In December 1962, Tulane’s board voluntarily moved to begin admitting Black students beginning in early 1963. But Keller’s work was done after securing their admission. She sought to make sure there was minimal media coverage of the event for the sake of the ladies’ safety, and was successful.
In the fall of 2013, Elloie and Thompson returned to Tulane, 50 years since they made history. “Fortunately, Tulane turned out to be a great experience. And it opened doors for so many others to experience it as well,” said Elloie according to the Sept. 2013 issue of Tulane Magazine.
“She’s a hero,” said Zervigon, who serves as president of the Keller Family Foundation, which was founded in 1949 and focuses on education and youth services in New Orleans.
“My grandparents weren’t particularly religious, they just knew it [segregation] was wrong, Zervigon said.” “There’s still more work to be done, so we participate.”
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