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Celebrating 125: Rosa F. Keller's Fight for Civil Rights, Social Justice, and Equality for All
Born into a wealthy white family in 1911, Rosa Freeman Keller could have easily lived out her life as just another member of New Orleans’ elite. Instead, she chose social justice over high society, and dedicated her life to civil rights. Until her death in 1998, Rosa F. Keller repeatedly took up arms to fight for equality for all – regardless of race, gender, or sexual identity – and was an especially important figure in the New Orleans Public Library’s path to inclusivity.
Her decisions alienated her from many of the exclusive groups she was born into – including the Mistick Krewe of Comus, one of New Orleans’ oldest and most prestigious Carnival social clubs. Rosa’s father, Alfred “A.B.” Freeman, was king of Carnival at the Comus ball in 1932, and she, a maid in the court.
The same year, Rosa married Charles Keller II, a West Point graduate who would soon go overseas to serve in World War II.
Before the war, Rosa was already engaged in politics as a member of the New Orleans chapter of the League of Women Voters. However, her interest in civil rights grew as the war waged on, according to her obituary in the Times-Picayune, which quotes Rosa saying:
“Black guys got drafted and sent overseas – in segregated units – and then they came back, and they’re supposed to sit in the back of the streetcar? That really upset me. When you need ’em, you use ’em? They used a lot of women, too, and then, when the men got home, they gave the jobs back to the men. That’s wrong. I’m not the world’s greatest feminist, but we had to get these things straight.”
Her opportunity to do so came after her mother’s death in 1945. Rosa was asked to serve on the board of the local Young Women’s Christian Association, the first integrated organization she had ever been involved with. According to her obituary, Rosa was very impressed with the Black women she worked alongside, calling them “lovely women, whom I never knew existed.”
Living in the segregated south, she said they had “no way of communicating before.” The epiphany laid the foundation for her decades of civil rights work and earned her a trusted place within Black communities.
She initially focused her efforts on improving infrastructure within a segregated New Orleans – like the 1947 creation of Pontchartrain Park, one of the first middle-class Black communities in the country. But it wasn’t long before she realized that separate could never be equal, and her goals shifted towards integration.
Rosa was an active supporter of Mayor deLesseps “Chep” Morrison, and played an important role in his 1945 campaign against long-time incumbent Robert Maestri. The success showed her “women could play a crucial role in setting community goals.” Bolstered with that knowledge, Rosa helped found the Independent Women’s Organization and later Campaign 21 – a political coalition dedicated to getting more women elected to public office.
Her ties to Morrison would also prove instrumental to her roles in desegregating the New Orleans Public Library system and the city’s public schools.
In 1953, Morrison named Rosa the first woman to serve on the New Orleans Public Library Board, which she would later go on to lead as organization’s first female chair.
At the time, the Library was in the planning process of creating a new location in the Broadmoor neighborhood, an area with a large Black population. Despite this fact, the Broadmoor Branch was set to serve only white patrons. At the time, the Library only had three small locations for Black New Orleanians, and Rosa saw an opportunity to change the landscape of the times.
Knowing she would be met with much backlash, Rosa formed a plan with Albert Dent, the then-president of Dillard University. The two distributed a petition to allow Black residents to use the Library’s music collection, which was housed at Milton H. Latter Memorial Library on St. Charles Avenue – a whites-only facility.
They hoped that by proving Black and white patrons could peacefully use the same collection side-by-side, the Board would be more amenable to integrating the new Broadmoor Library.
The fight was not an easy one, as detailed in Rosa’s autobiography:
“Logic had no role in the case at all; the red warning lights of emotion went on and blurred the members’ vision,” she wrote. “The board’s prophecies were dire: books and records would be destroyed, for Negroes took no care of things. Staff members were sure to resign in a body, rather than serve Negroes. Donations such as the one which established the music collection would no longer be made. More arguments ensued, and the meeting went on and on, getting nowhere. Would I explain, please, to the petitioning group, who were my friends, that if we granted their request it would ruin the [Library] system?”
These dehumanizing responses almost led Rosa to resign from the board. But, when she met with Morrison to explain her choice, he convinced Rosa to stand her ground. At her insistence, Morrison addressed the board directly. The result was more than Rosa even dared to hope for – the board agreed to integrate not only the music collection, but the entire Library system.
In 1954, all New Orleans Public Library locations were officially desegregated, on paper, at least. However, it would take many years before the organization was truly integrated in practice.
Though her primary goal had been accomplished, Rosa remained an active and outspoken Library champion for decades to come. She resigned from her position on the Library board in 1979, after serving for 26 years.
In 1997, the Broad Branch was dedicated in her honor, and to this day bears the name Rosa F. Keller Library & Community Center.
In addition to desegregating the Library, Rosa played an important role in integrating the city’s public transportation and school systems.
Along with other initiatives, she helped found the Save our Schools organization, which fought to keep the city’s education system running amid the chaos that engulfed New Orleans as court-ordered desegregation played out in the 1960s. She also single-handedly paid for the lawsuit that integrated Tulane University a few years later, using money she had saved to buy a new fur coat.
After winning the case, Rosa and Charles allowed the plaintiffs – Dillard alumnae Barbara Marie Guillory and Pearlie Hardie Elloie – to use their home as a safe place to study, relax, and spend their time.
As integration slowly took hold across New Orleans and it’s systems, Rosa’s fight for social justice did not stop. Throughout her life, she served on many local and national boards, and received countless accolades for her community service and dedication to civil rights.
In 1954, she was given the Lane Bryant Award for her work in race relations. Upon accepting the honor, she said, “No finer service can, I think, possibly be rendered than that of trying to bridge the gaps and adjust the inequities between peoples.”
Though much of her work focused on gender and race equality, Keller was also a vocal advocate for LGBTQ rights. In the 1990s when Rosa was in her 80s, she testified in front of the New Orleans City Council on behalf of the Human Rights Ordinance to “protect gays and lesbians from discrimination,” according to a letter published in the Times-Picayune.
Ginger Berrigan, the letter’s author, recalled Rosa’s response when Berrigan thanked her for openly supporting the gay community.
“She shook her head, mystified, and said ‘People are people. It makes no sense to be unkind.’”
Rosa’s husband, Charles, shared many of the same passions and values as she did, despite the couple often facing criticism from their peers and families. In addition to her own awards, the pair received numerous honors for their dedication to social justice and community improvement.
Though she will long be remembered as a champion of rights for all, Rosa F. Keller consistently rejected the praise, often stating, “I was just trying to be a good Christian.”
Regardless of intent, her work affected many and still continues to have an impact today in the form of the Keller Family Foundation, which Rosa and Charles established in 1949. The foundation benefits organizations devoted to education, civic affairs, and social services.
In 2014, the Library Board named Keller one of four chairmen emeritus, an honorary position created to pay tribute to the Library’s most distinguished past board chairmen for their service, contributions and dedication.
This story is part of the Library’s 125th Anniversary celebration. Do you have a story that captures 125 years of transforming lives, enriching history, and preserving history? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org!