Thursday, July 25, 2002

Civil-rights pioneer Porterfield honored

Park named for 'the Rosa Parks of N. Kentucky'

By Cindy Schroeder,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        ELSMERE — The Elsmere Park Board is rededicating the Rosella French Porterfield Park Saturday to honor the retired educator who pushed for integration of the Erlanger-Elsmere Independent Schools.

        A bronze plaque depicting Mrs. Porterfield, 83, a former librarian and teacher, will be unveiled. “To us, (Mrs. Porterfield) would be the Rosa Parks of Northern Kentucky,” said former student and Elsmere native Bobbie Bonner, 66, who sits on the Elsmere Park Board.

        In 1955 — less than a year after the U.S. Supreme Court abolished segregated schools — Mrs. Porterfield, then the head teacher at the all-black Wilkins Heights School in Elsmere, approached Superintendent Edgar Arnett “basically saying it was time that (Erlanger-Elsmere schools) integrate,” said Tim Jones, instructional supervisor for the school district.

   What: Rededication of Rosella French Porterfield Park
   When: 6-8 p.m. Saturday
   Where: Rosella French Porterfield Park, 1000A Capitol Ave., Elsmere
        Mr. Arnett took the proposal to the school board, which unanimously approved a phased-in integration of the school district, starting with the youngest grades.

        On the plaque the 40-year educator is depicted holding the hands of a young Debbie Onkst of Erlanger, a white student who later followed in Mrs. Porterfield's footsteps as a librarian for the school system, and Elsmere Mayor Billy Bradford, Northern Kentucky's first African-American mayor.

        Originally named for Mrs. Porterfield in September 1995, the park is being rededicated after the addition of new playground equipment and benches. The park is next to the former Wilkins Heights School which is now a Northern Kentucky Head Start center.

        Erlanger-Elsmere schools accomplished the change without agitation, Life magazine reported Sept. 17, 1956.

        On that date, the celebrated weekly ran a photo of an integrated Erlanger-Elsmere classroom reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

        “To my knowledge, we were one of the first districts in Kentucky to integrate,” Mr. Jones said.

        “Erlanger-Elsmere schools were highlighted because it was a very smooth, peaceful process, which was very unusual at the time. It was not a forced situation. It was a voluntary situation, largely because of Mrs. Porterfield.”

        Today, as then, the community was largely white. The 2000 U.S. Census shows that 91 percent of Elsmere's 8,139 residents were white, and 5.4 percent African-American; and that 95 percent of Erlanger's 16,676 residents were white, with 1.8 percent African-American.

        A Daviess County native, Mrs. Porterfield obtained her graduate degrees at a time when few African-American women accomplished such goals.

        She began her teaching career at Barnes Temple Church on Elsmere's Fox Street. Seven years later, she moved to Wilkins Heights School on Capitol Street, where she taught and served as head teacher.

        When Mrs. Porterfield moved to Wilkins Heights School, the teachers had no supplementary books, so she made it her business to get some. “I would pack books from the school library so that the kids would have something to read,” she said. Later, she lobbied the school board for money to buy the school a World Book Encyclopedia set.

        “I said, "How can I teach the children to do research if we don't have any encyclopedias?' ” Mrs. Porterfield recalled.

        After integration, she realized her long-time dream and became the first African-American librarian in the Erlanger-Elsmere school system.

        Mrs. Onkst, 46, who now works as media director for Erlanger-Elsmere schools and runs the teacher resource center, said that Mrs. Porterfield had the knack of making every pupil she encountered feel like “the most special child.”.

        “I probably became a librarian in large part because of her,” Mrs. Onkst said. “She read so beautifully and she told the best stories. Every time I went in the library, she'd pull out a book, and say, "I've been saving this for you.' I probably read a lot of books I normally wouldn't have because of her.”

        “She's the only teacher I've ever known who could get away with reading to eighth-graders,” Mr. Jones said.

        Retired since 1980, the Walton resident says she's thrilled with her latest recognition, but Mrs. Porterfield shrugs off the lavish praise.

        “I never saw myself as a role model, and I don't feel like I did anything special,” she said. “I just enjoyed my work and tried to enrich my students' lives. I did what any good teacher would do.”


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