Filed Under Segregation

Rosella French Porterfield

Educator and Civil Rights Activist

Called the "Rosa Parks of Northern Kentucky"

Rosella French Porterfield was born in Daviess County, KY in 1919. The granddaughter of a formerly enslaved person, in 1940, she became the first in her family to graduate from college (Kentucky Normal and Industrial School, now Kentucky State University). Her first teaching job was at Barnes Temple A.M.E. Church in Elsmere (part of the building was used as a Black school for 1st through 3rd graders), and she sent money home to her parents to help the pay off the family farm.

She began teaching at the lone all-Black Dunbar School in Elsmere in 1940. One day, she was taking the bus to work and refused to sit in the back of the segregated bus, telling the driver that having three brothers in the armed forces gave her the right to sit anywhere. Rosella was applauded by the other passengers, including a white serviceman, who offered her his seat.

In 1949, that facility was replaced by the Wilkins Heights School. This small school was nonetheless much larger than its predecessor, containing two classrooms, a kitchen, and a gymnasium that doubled as a cafeteria. Most of the local Black elementary and junior high school students attended the Wilkins Heights School, with Porterfield as its principal, quickly earning a reputation due to her advocacy for adequate school supplies for her students.

In 1955, one year after the Brown v. Board of Education decision to abolish school segregation, Porterfield proposed to Edgar Arnett, Superintendent of the Erlanger/Elsmere School District, that her students be allowed to integrate into a local all-white school. Thus, the district became one of the first in Kentucky to desegregate. The process was widely lauded as peaceful and collaborative, with a 17 Sep 1956 story in Life magazine reporting that the feat was accomplished "without agitation." This was considered unusual, and much of the credit was given to Porterfield.

Rosella obtained additional professional certification at the University of Kentucky and went on to serve as the first Black librarian in the Erlanger/Elsmere Schools, working at the Tichenor Middle School. She retired in 1980.

Porterfield was a long-time member of Zion Baptist Missionary Church in Walton, where her involvement included serving as a Sunday school teacher, superintendent with the church, church choir director, organist, and pianist. She was also a member of the Homemakers Association, Retired Teachers Association and Walton Senior Citizens.

In 2002, the library at Howell Elementary School was renamed and dedicated the Rosella French Porterfield Library. That year, the Elsmere Park Board dedicated the Rosella French Porterfield Park on Capitol Ave. in her honor. Fittingly, the park is located next to the Head Start Building, and its features include a basketball court and playgrounds.

Rosella French Porterfield passed away in 2004 at the age of 85. She is buried at Richwood Presbyterian Cemetery in Walton.

In 2007, Rosella French Porterfield was inducted into the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights Hall of Fame. Notable Kentucky African Americans (NKAA) has designated Porterfield the "Rosa Parks of Northern Kentucky."

On Sat 5 Sep 2020, Rosella French Porterfield Park was the site of an event called "Good Trouble Saturday," named so in tribute to the late Congressman John Lewis. It was a call for equality and a demand for justice for Breonna Taylor. Protesters met in the park and walked two miles to the Boone County High School, concluding the event with a rally and a voter registration drive.

Location

Rosella French Porterfield Park, 994 Capitol Ave. [approx.], Elsmere, KY | open dawn until dusk

Metadata

Maya Drozdz, “Rosella French Porterfield,” Cincinnati Sites and Stories, accessed November 30, 2022, https://stories.cincinnatipreservation.org/items/show/170.