Students at New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School were quite definitive about what hero they wanted to research and discuss. The Nola4Women Heroes of New Orleans students, says teacher Melanie Boulet, overwhelmingly voted for local Civil Rights activist, Rosa Freeman Keller. “She won by a lot,” says Boulet.

The process, says Boulet, first started by working with the word hero. Students discussed characteristics that define a hero and soon discovered that they had rather diverse opinions on what that meant. Together, after much debate, students came up with a consensus and developed a working definition that fit the characteristics they found most essential. Next they examined a list of 15 heroes with short (picture-less) biographies. Each student was given 10 tally-mark votes, she says, which he/she could spread among different candidates or put them all in the same basket. “There were 250 votes cast, which made it exciting,” says Boulet.

What drew students to Keller, says Boulet, is that she was a “White woman taking on the cause of Blacks” in the 1950s. Her commitment to Civil Rights wasn’t superficial, she says, and that made an impression on students. Keller helped found Save Our Schools, which shuttled Black children to and from newly integrated schools and fought the Orleans Parish School Board and the Louisiana Legislature’s threats to shutdown public schools. Students examined the creative ways Keller, as a woman in the 50s, navigated behind the scenes to successfully create change.

One exciting find, says Boulet, is a resignation letter students uncovered in their research. “It was like finding the big rabbit at an Easter egg hunt,” she says. Students read about Keller’s threat to resign from the library board as a way to push for integration, says Boulet, but to witness the methodology in her own words was exhilarating for students. “The letter is a piece of history and students found it invaluable,” she says.

The class was also able to meet with Keller’s daughter, Mary Zervigon, who told students stories about threats to Keller’s life for the work she did to desegregate institutions in New Orleans such as public schools, medical school libraries and Tulane University. “The students were amazed that she fought on, despite push back from her family and threats to her life,” says Boulet.

“They learned that resistance just made her fight harder for equality.”