Rosella French was born in 1918 in Daviess County, not far from Owensboro, KY. She was one of eight children, and grew up in a rural environment of modest means. Rosella showed an interest in learning early on, often defying bedtime rules to read a few more minutes each night. Though the options for an African American girl were few in rural Kentucky at the time, Rosella French defied the odds, dedicating her life to learning and sharing that knowledge with others.
She attended Western High School in Owensboro, where she was named Valedictorian, then went on to attend Kentucky State College, earning a BA in English and graduating magna cum laude. Rosella married Vernon Porterfield in 1944, and had a son, David. The family moved to Walton, where Rosella lived the remainder of her life.
Because she didn’t drive, Porterfield took the bus from Walton to her first teaching job at the all-black Dunbar School in Erlanger, in the 1940s. An article in the Cincinnati Enquirer in 2003 recounts the story of when Porterfield refused to sit in the back of the segregated bus, telling the driver that her three brothers’ service in the armed forces gave her the right to sit anywhere she pleased. This response was applauded by the other passengers, which included a white serviceman, who offered his seat to her. Rosella Porterfield had secured her place as an early civil rights activist, though she was modest about this praise.
After teaching the lower grades for several years, Porterfield moved on to become the lead teacher at the new all-black Wilkins High School. She made an impression early, contacting Superintendent Arnett of Erlanger-Elsmere Schools, when she found Wilkins was in dire need of books and supplies; those needs were quickly met. Her campaign for equal treatment for her students would continue.
When the Supreme Court made its landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, Rosella was again the voice for change. Porterfield advocated for change in her district, resulting in Erlanger-Elsmere becoming one of the earliest districts to desegregate in Kentucky. She continued her career as both a teacher and school librarian until her 1980 retirement.
A longtime member of the Zion Baptist Church in Walton, Porterfield shared her joy of both learning and music as Sunday school superintendent, choir director and organist. As a show of gratitude for her work in education and civil rights, a park in Elsmere was rededicated in her honor in 2002. Rosella French Porterfield died in 2004, at the age of 85. In 2007, she was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights.