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Featured Photograph: Rosa Lucille Hart (1900-1964) pictued in about 1921 – Newcomb College First female cheerleader in the nation. (Tulane University photo Archives)

Carola Lillie Hartley
Publisher and Contributing Writer

As I like to say, Opelousas is a small town with a big story to tell. And there are many chapters to that big story. One chapter that most have probably never heard is the one about the first woman cheerleader in the US and her connection to Opelousas.

The Nation’s First Woman Cheerleader
As we are now in the middle of football season, have you ever thought about how we came to celebrate the traditions of the game we know today as American Football?  Think about cheerleading for instance. How did that begin, where, and who was involved?

History of Cheerleading in the US
Although cheering during a sporting event dates to ancient times, cheerleading as we know it today came over from Europe in the beginning of the 1860s. When the new sport known as football began in New Jersey in 1869, some records claim the first cheers for the football teams were heard at a game between Princeton University and Rutgers University in that state during that first year. The idea spread quickly and by 1884 the first known “cheer” in the US was shouted from the crowd at Princeton University:

Ray, Ray, Ray!
Tiger, Tiger, Tiger!
Sis, Sis, Sis!
Boom, Boom, Boom
Aaaaah! Princeton, Princeton, Princeton!

After that cheer at the 1884 New Jersey football game, Princeton graduate Thomas Peebles took the idea to the University of Minnesota, and the art of cheerleading really began to spread.

At first all cheerleaders were men. Fast forward to 1918 in New Orleans. When Newcomb College moved from its old location during that year to one adjoining the Tulane campus, the Tulane football team wished to recruit a student from Newcomb to help cheer their football team to victory. In 1919 for that year’s football season Newcomb College honored that wish and selected Rosa Lucille Hart to do just that. According to the records at Tulane, Rosa became the first woman cheerleader in the US.

The first female cheerleader in the United States Rosa Hart cheering in her homemade outfit during 1919. (Tulane University)

Who was Rosa Lucille Hart?
Born in Woodville, MS on August 27, 1900, Rosa was the daughter of Frederick A. Hart and Fannie Jacobs. Although born in Mississippi, Rosa’s genealogy was deeply rooted in Opelousas and St. Landry Parish, Louisiana. Her mother Fannie was the daughter of Solomon and Rosa Jacobs.

Rosa Hart’s Grandfather Solomon Jacobs of Opelousas, LA. (Carola Lillie Hartley collection)

Solomon Jacobs was a prominent Opelousas merchant who migrated to the town from Prussia in 1857. He had a large Mercantile store located on Main Street in the heart of downtown Opelousas. Rosa’s grandfather Solomon Jacobs and his sons Aaron, Adolph and Jonas were all well respected Opelousas businessmen of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Jacobs Corner on the northeast corner of Main and Bellevue streets in downtown Opelousas is named for Solomon Jacobs, an immigrant from Prussia who opened his mercantile store on this corner during the 1860s. His business operated here in downtown Opelousas for many years with his sons Jonas (1869-1907), Aaron (1873-1959) and Adolph (1875-1950) eventually running the store. Following his retirement, the old building was sold and demolished with his sons running other businesses in Opelousas for many years. Solomon Jacobs was the grandfather of Rosa Lucille Hart.

In 1910, Rosa’s parents moved the family from Mississippi to Lake Charles, LA. She attended the local schools there and in 1917, Rosa moved to New Orleans to attend Newcomb college on a scholarship. She was extremely outgoing and active as a member of the Debating Team; Dramatic Club; Hullabaloo, Jambalaya, and Newcomb Arcade staff; student council; and several sports teams; and involved in many more activities. But her legacy at the school was as the nation’s first female cheerleader. As a result, Rosa created an opportunity for girls and women in the field of the sport of cheerleading.

Rosa the Cheerleader
When Rosa was selected as cheerleader, she knew nothing about the game of football, or what she was expected to do. So, she started by yelling loud and whistling. She did not have a uniform, so she created one — a long white dress covered with olive and blue ribbons and Tulane pennants. She yelled her cheers wearing her calfskin ankle boots while standing on a field of grass.

Rosa Hart, the nations first female cheerleader, cheering in front of the Newcomb College section at the LSU game in 1920. (Tulane University.)

When interviewed about that experience of cheering at her first game, Rosa told the reporter for the Tulanian how surprised she was to see herself on the front page of newspapers. “I remember distinctly,” she said, “because my petticoat was showing a full six inches. This was characteristic since my petticoat always showed.” The Dean of the college insisted that Rosa cheer in skirts and a corset. She cheered until her graduation from Newcomb in 1921. For her work as a cheerleader, Rosa received a gold football and a Tulane varsity sweater.  

Rosa Hart, feature portrait, Jambalaya 1920, (Tulane University.)

Theater Work
Following her college graduation, Rosa spent a year in New York city before returning to Lake Charles where she taught school and worked in her father’s insurance agency. Eventually she became director of booking and publicity for a movie theater.

In 1927, Rosa joined with another woman named Annabel Dees and the two founded the Lake Charles Little Theater, the love of her life. She directed every theater production for the next thirty years and never collected a salary. She was a true patron of the arts, corresponding with many influential actors and writers of that time including William Faulkner and Lyle Saxon. Through her work with the theater, Rosa became the most important cultural figure in Lake Charles history.

Rosa’s Death and Burial
After she retired, Rosa opened a bookstore in Lake Charles and remained active in the community, still volunteering with the little theater until her death on June 7,1964.

The funeral service for Rosa Lucille Hart was held in Lake Charles, with a large crowd in attendance. Following the service, her body was brought to Opelousas, LA for burial in the Temple Emanuel Jewish Cemetery.

The grave of Rosa Lucille Hart located in the Temple Emanuel Cemetery in Opelousas, LA.

Rosa Hart Theater in Lake Charles
Because of her dedication to the little theater, following her death, the Lake Charles Civic Theatre was renamed the Rosa Hart Theatre in her honor. That theatre has been shuttered since 2020, after Hurricane Laura caused significant damage. Repairs are now completed, and the theater will be opened again to provide the Lake Charles community with the opportunity to experience the magic of local arts and culture in this historic venue.

This coming Sunday, October 15, 2023, the Rosa Hart Theatre will be rededicated in honor of Rosa’s numerous contributions to the local arts and culture scene. Hart, the first female cheerleader in the nation, went on to start the Lake Charles Little Theatre, and was a trailblazer in the community for numerous other artists.

A Cheer for Rosa
And so now we know the story of Rosa Lucille Hart, the first female cheerleader in the United States and her connection to Opelousas. Next time you attend a football game, and give a cheer, think about the woman who paved the way for others to lead that cheer. And she is buried in one of our local cemeteries, located in the eastern part of our city. 

Closing Note: Many people in Opelousas remember Miss Lillian Jacobs Bourdier. It is interesting to note Miss Lillian and Rosa Hart were first cousins who remained close and visited often during their lives.