Rosa Freeman Keller was born in New Orleans in 1911. A white heiress to a Coca-Cola bottling fortune, Keller could easily have chosen to live out her days quietly and comfortably in her Uptown home, with little social reflection. Instead, she used her finances and influence to launch a lifelong fight for racial equality in the city of New Orleans.
Keller’s activism began when she was invited to join the New Orleans YWCA Board of Directors in 1945, filling the spot vacated by her mother at her death. The integrated atmosphere of the organization opened Keller’s eyes to the possibilities of different cultural groups “working together and enjoying each other.” She befriended African American women for the first time and became appalled by the segregation laws that kept her from socializing and traveling with the friends she had made. Not only that, but as a YWCA board member, Keller became active in the war efforts of World War II and began to see parallels between what was happening in Europe and what was happening at home.
In her own account of her life, found in her papers at the Amistad Research Center, Keller described the mood of the era: “The first time I really got interested in politics was war time, ‘cause I thought it was terribly important… And it was also when I became interested in race relations. You can see how that fits. I think the thing that really outraged people in this country was the way Jews were treated in Germany. It was completely outrageous… It scared me a little bit that it was possible that the differences between black people and white people could turn into something like what happened in Germany, and I think it could have. I started working.”
She started small, and began by engaging with the issues in her own community. “It was really interesting. You see, when you’re involved in local politics, you’ve got neighbors, and you vote in the school two or three blocks away. Things like that were intimate things that you could have a little influence on.” She became involved with the Community Chest, now known as the United Way. It was there that she learned about the work that was being done by the Urban League. Realizing the importance of the organization, she became a vocal supporter of the group, and was invited to join their board of directors. She later went on to become President. One of her initiatives as a part of the Urban League was to provide training courses for African American workers to smooth their transition into recently desegregated work places.
A cause dear to her heart was school desegregation. Keller was one of the founders of the Save Our Schools (SOS) organization, and petitioned the Orleans Parish School Board to keep the schools open following integration. This was not genteel work. There was a very real danger involved in her participation. Many people lost their jobs over support of school desegregation. In one frightening incident, a member of the school board, someone who had been a friend, came to Keller’s house and threatened her in her living room with a gun while her children sat upstairs doing their school work. “There were two or three people that cracked up over all this [change],” she said of the incident, “…That kind of hate can destroy you.”
Not content with leaving desegregation to the realm of the public schools, Keller set her sights on higher education, organizing and financing the lawsuit that desegregated Tulane University. She had close ties with the university, where friends and even her own brother served on the board. She described the work as “uncomfortable,” but knew it was necessary and right. “When you go against a place like Tulane, you’re really attacking a power base,” she said. “They had the best lawyers in the city. Most were graduates of Tulane. It was really awful. Two years – nobody thought it would take that long.” Tulane’s students and faculty were open-minded when it came to desegregation. “It went well, it went very well. Tulane was ready, but the board just wasn’t.” Later on, both her brother and the board chairman would thank her for her efforts, recognizing the value of the work despite their initial misgivings.
Keller’s social activism continued until her death in 1998. In her life, she had helped to organize the Independent Women’s Organization. She began integration in the League of Women Voters and served on the board of Dillard University and Flint-Goodridge Hospital, a facility catering to the black community. She became the first woman to serve on a citywide board in New Orleans as a member of the board of the New Orleans Public Library, and used that position to push for the integration of the library system. She advocated for the presence of women in elected leadership roles, and supported the 1986 campaign for Dorothy Mae Taylor, the first female member-at-large elected to the New Orleans City Council.
Rosa Freeman Keller stands as a model of how each of us can leverage our own advantages and privileges to fight injustice where we see it. Today, the Keller Family Foundation, along with the RosaMary Foundation founded by her father Alfred B. Freeman, honor her memory and that of her family by supporting worthy causes throughout the Greater New Orleans area.
The Rosa Freeman Keller papers were processed under a grant from the Keller Family Foundation. The finding aid can be found here.
Images from the Rosa Freeman Keller papers and the Save Our Schools records. Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.