Dr. Norman C. Francis has been described as a shining light and a superstar in education. Former professional basketball player Earvin “Magic” Johnson called him “an American hero, American icon, American treasure.”
A new WYES-TV documentary titled, “Dr. Norman C Francis: A Legacy of Leadership,” looks at the life of Dr. Francis and his impact through interviews with colleagues, family, and friends.
When to watch
“Norman C. Francis: Legacy of Leadership” airs Tuesday (Sept. 27) at 8 p.m. on WYES-TV, wyes.org, and on the free WYES and PBS apps. It will also stream for a limited time on the WYES YouTube channel.
Dr. Francis led Xavier University, the only historically Black Catholic university, for nearly five decades. But his impact went beyond the campus. Francis was one of the early investors in the New Orleans Saints and helped lead the city during Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts. He hosted the pope and was an adviser to eight American presidents.
Francis was born in Lafayette in 1931, the son of a hotel bellhop and barber. His mother was a homemaker. Their children were taught the core values of the Catholic faith, education, and community. Francis recalled an early childhood memory of when his friend’s father died and the neighborhood came together to build a casket because the family could not afford one. It was this sense of community that would drive Dr. Francis’ life and work.
After graduating valedictorian from St. Paul’s Catholic School in 1948, Francis received a scholarship to attend Xavier University. He was put on a segregated train to New Orleans and became a standout student at Xavier. Francis was elected freshman class president, sophomore class president, junior class president and became student government president his senior year.
Francis graduated from Xavier with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and made history as the first Black student at Loyola University New Orleans’ law school. But segregation was still very much in the fabric of New Orleans and he was not allowed to live on the Loyola campus. Instead, Xavier welcomed him into the dorms.
After graduating with honors from Loyola Law School, Francis served as dean of men at Xavier, where he met and married his wife, Blanche. The couple would eventually have six children, who grew up on Xavier’s campus.
It was the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement — protests, marches, demonstrations. Students participated in lunch counter sit-ins and freedom rides. As a lawyer, Francis found a way to be involved in activism. He represented students Oretha Castle Haley and Rudy Lombard in a case that went all the way to the United States Supreme Court. He was also counsel for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), one of the main sponsors of the 1961 Freedom Rides in which Black and white activists traveled on integrated buses from Washington D.C. to New Orleans as a protest against segregation.
After being attacked by a mob in Alabama, the freedom riders flew to New Orleans. Francis allowed them to stay in Xavier University’s dorms. His decision to house the freedom riders was a bold stance in support of desegregation and solidified Xavier’s reputation as a pro-civil rights institution.
At the age of 37, Dr. Francis was appointed president of Xavier University. He was the school’s first lay president. When he was put on a segregated train headed to New Orleans nearly two decades earlier, Francis couldn’t have known that he would lead the university for nearly 50 years, transforming it into a world-class university known for its pre-med program, sending more Black students to medical school than any other university in America.
Due to his influence in the Black community, Dr. Francis was tapped by businessman Dave Dixon in the early 1960s to help appeal to the NFL to launch a professional football team in New Orleans and he became an early investor in the New Orleans Saints.
Understanding Black buying power, Francis was a founder of Liberty Bank in 1972. He has continued to lead the bank for five decades as it has become the largest Black-owned bank in the country.
During his tenure at Xavier, the campus expanded with additions of permanent dormitories and the pharmacy college, followed by the science complex and an improved library. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Dr. Francis poured his energies into reviving the campus, successfully reopening it in time for the spring 2006 semester. He was asked by the governor to co-chair the Louisiana Recovery Authority, a state agency created after Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita.
“He’s the finest man I ever met, a model of a community leader, university leader,” said former Tulane University president Scott Cowen.
Dr. Francis would go on to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006 from President George W. Bush and former United States Attorney General Eric Holder would describe Dr. Francis as a man who “helped make our nation more fair and more just.”
Dr. Francis retired as president of Xavier University in 2015. In 2017, the New Orleans City Council voted to rename the Jefferson Davis Parkway as Norman C. Francis Parkway. And in January 2021, Dr. Francis cut the ribbon on the street named after him. The tribute was more than about praise, but it was also about progress representing a changing America.
Dr. Francis’ commitment and dedication to community, that core value that was instilled in him as a young boy in Lafayette, never changed.
“My style? I believed everybody was somebody and everybody was important.”
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