The people we choose to honor in public spaces matter.
As such, thousands rejoiced on Jan. 1, 2021, when New Orleans’ Jefferson Davis Parkway officially became the Norman C. Francis Parkway.
Calls to rename the Crescent City’s popular thoroughfare, which was itself renamed to “honor” the Confederacy’s slave-owning president by white segregationists in 1910, date back decades.
However, it took last summer’s protests against white supremacy and the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor to force municipal leaders to finally act.
On Aug. 20, 2020, the New Orleans City Council, at the urging of more the 14,000 petitioners, unanimously voted to rename the parkway after Francis, one of the city’s most respected educational leaders and champions of racial equality and human dignity.
Much of the news about this monumental name change has focused on the importance of ridding our nation of hate monuments erected to misrepresent history and champion white supremacy. But the Catholic dimensions of the story are also noteworthy.
After all, New Orleans is home to one of the nation’s oldest Catholic communities. The histories of the city’s white and Black Catholic faithful are deeply intertwined with that of the Confederacy, the Lost Cause movement and the long African American struggle for freedom and civil rights.
Davis wasn’t Catholic, but he was educated in his youth by the slaveholding Dominican friars in Kentucky. Davis also maintained a strong connection to the white Catholic community, religious and lay, male and female, for the remainder of his life.
In New Orleans, where Davis died and was buried in 1889, white Catholics not only overwhelmingly supported the Confederacy during the Civil War, but also violently opposed the Reconstruction-era legislation that formally abolished slavery and extended citizenship and voting rights to Black men.
In fact, the Daughters of Charity cared for Davis during his final illness, and two Mercy Sisters arrived to pray over his body shortly after his death. A Jesuit priest also helped to officiate Davis’ funeral in New Orleans.
Norman Francis, on the other hand, is among the church’s most distinguished faithful and a proud member of southern Louisiana’s long-standing African American Catholic community, which launched many challenges to white supremacy and Jim Crow segregation during and in the immediate decades following Reconstruction.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson subverted these protests, subsequent generations of Louisiana’s African American Catholics, religious and lay, carried the fight forward and broke down significant racial barriers in American life, including the church, after World War II.
In 1952, Francis, a native of Lafayette, Louisiana, and a graduate of its all-Black St. Paul’s School administered by the historically Afro-Creole and Black Sisters of the Holy Family, desegregated the Loyola University School of Law in New Orleans. Three years later, he became the Jesuit institution’s first African American graduate.
In the 1960s, when white Catholic New Orleanians emerged as some of the most virulent leaders and foot soldiers of massive resistance to the civil rights movement, Francis rose to face the unyielding threat of white supremacy again by supporting local desegregation campaigns.
While serving as the dean of men at his undergraduate alma mater, Xavier College (now Xavier University of Louisiana), in 1961, Francis secretly arranged for the Congress of Racial Equality’s Freedom Riders to be housed on campus. The interracial Freedom Riders had arrived in New Orleans beaten and terrorized by white supremacist vigilante forces aided by the police across the deep South.
Seven years later, amid increasing calls for Black leadership in Black institutions, Francis accepted the invitation to become Xavier’s first Black and lay president and undertook a massive campaign to transform the historically Black and Catholic institution of higher education into an academic powerhouse.
Under Francis’ 47-year leadership, Xavier’s enrollment tripled and its endowment grew steadily. Francis also led the efforts to transform Xavier into the nation’s most successful producer of Black medical school graduates — which may very well be his most important legacy in our nation.
Indeed, when one considers Francis’ long and distinguished resume, which earned him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006, renaming New Orleans’ Jefferson Davis Parkway after Francis was the perfect choice to overturn such an egregious historical and moral wrong.
That the official name change took place on the anniversary of the Haitian Revolution, which cemented the foundation of anti-slavery across the Americas and seeded a significant portion of Louisiana’s African American Catholic community, also matters.
The moral arc of the universe has always required the courage and service of dedicated people to bend it toward justice.
As our nation and church continue to suffer the lethal effects of their ongoing failures to fully acknowledge and atone for centuries of slavery and segregation, the new Norman Francis Parkway is an important beacon of hope.
It is also a powerful reminder of the moral necessity of historical truth telling and justice in the building of the beloved community.
Shannen Dee Williams is the Albert Lepage assistant professor of history at Villanova University and author of the Catholic News Service column, “The Griot’s Cross.” She is completing her first book, “Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle.” Follow her on Twitter at @Blknunhistorian.
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