Rosa Freeman Keller used her influence to mold the world around her and change the unfair practices she saw daily due to white supremacy and segregation.
Keller, born in 1911, was the daughter of a successful Louisiana Coca-Cola tycoon, A.B. Freeman. Keller was white, wealthy, and maintained societal connections that would bolster her activism efforts. Keller’s brother was a member on several boards in New Orleans and Keller was also close friends with Judge J. Skelly Wright. (1) In 1932, Keller experienced anti-Semitism after marrying her Jewish husband Charles Keller Junior. Keller’s husband was in the army and spent time away from the family. Keller used that time to focus on activism. Keller recalled, “It was World War II that woke a lot of us up… I’d married a Jewish fellow, and learned a lot about prejudice then… I thought I could see the seeds of what got Germany in such terrible trouble right here.” (1)
In 1944, Keller formally began her role in activism when she joined the New Orleans Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) Board of Directors, a position previously held by her mother. (2) Keller noticed the discrimination that African Americans experienced and also became aware of her own privilege. “It was bad enough that they were kept out of privately owned facilities, but worse was my perception that “public” meant “public for whites only,” said Keller. (3) Keller worked with African-American women at YWCA. Keller recalled, “I met people like Jesse Dent and Daisy Young… They were ladies, lovely people, beautifully educated. I didn’t know they existed; the town was so sealed up in compartments.” (1)
In 1945, Keller became a supporter of the Urban League and would become its president. (1) Keller used her influence to open doors that were closed to African Americans. Keller escorted Black community leaders into the offices of white businessmen to encourage them to employ African Americans. (1) In 1959, Keller worked to desegregate New Orleans public schools and public libraries and received death threats for her efforts. (2, 4) Keller served on the boards of Dillard University, a historically Black university, and Flint-Goodridge Hospital, which provided much-needed medical services to the Black community. In 1964, Keller financed the lawsuit that desegregated Tulane University and participated in voter registration projects with leaders in the Black community. (1) Keller worked with white liberals and Black community leaders to address issues that affected African Americans in New Orleans. In 1993, A New Orleans Public Library branch was dedicated in her honor on Broad Street. (5)