February 23, 2018

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Black Catholics in U.S. history: This week, Norman Francis

John F. FinkDr. Norman Christopher Francis was president of Xavier University of Louisiana for 47 years, from 1968 to 2015. He was named among the 100 most effective college presidents in a poll published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, was awarded honorary degrees by 35 colleges and universities, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006.

These were tremendous achievements for a poor black boy who once shined shoes for pocket money on the main street of Lafayette, La., the city where he was born on March 20, 1931. His father was a barber who rode to work on a bicycle because he could not afford a car.

Although Norman, his three sisters and a brother started out in life as poor and underprivileged, they still attended Catholic schools. Their parents made sure they got a good education and that they attended Mass on Sundays. Norman’s brother Joseph, who died in 1997, became an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J.

Because of the interest of one of the religious sisters who taught Norman at St. Paul High School, he secured a work scholarship to attend Xavier University in New Orleans, the college founded by St. Katharine Drexel mainly for African-American students. The “work” part was in the university library.

Francis was an honor student and also was elected president of his class all four years at Xavier. After his graduation in 1952, he became one of the first two African-Americans to enroll at Loyola University Law School in New Orleans. He received his J.D. degree with honors in 1955 and began to practice law. Then, like most men at that time, he served two years in the Armed Forces, the Army in Francis’ case, before working for a time in the U.S attorney’s office.

About that time, he served as a lawyer for the Xavier University student body president who had been arrested for trying to integrate a lunch counter on Canal Street. This experience made him decide that his future should be in education rather than the law.

The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, the religious order that operates Xavier University, offered him the position of dean of men in 1957. He quickly rose to higher positions until 1968, when he was chosen as the first lay, male and black president of the university. (Coincidentally, he accepted the presidency on the day that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.)

Under Francis’ guidance for 47 years, Xavier University more than tripled its enrollment, broadened its curriculum and expanded its campus. He retired in 2015 when he was 84 and was named president emeritus.

Besides his presidency, Francis served on numerous outside agencies, including the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, the board of trustees of The Catholic University of America, the board of regents of Loyola University, and the board of directors of the National Catholic Council for Interracial Justice.

He also served as the chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the state agency in charge of planning the recovery and rebuilding of Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita. †

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