About a month after the “Jefferson Davis Parkway” street signs were replaced by “Norman C Francis Parkway,” the city celebrated the change Thursday (Jan. 28) with a dedication of the renamed boulevard on its neutral ground outside Xavier University.
It’s a rare street-naming ceremony that can include the street’s eponym. Norman C. Francis, 89, sat near the podium in a bowler hat and face mask, leaning on a cane as the speakers honored him with accolades.
Francis was president of Xavier University for nearly 50 years, the longest tenure of any university president in the nation. During that tenure, Xavier more than doubled its enrollment, broadened its curriculum, expanded its campus and strengthened its financial base.
He became nationally recognized as a leader in education and is also known as a leader in civil rights. Francis is closely tied to the Freedom Fighters movement in the 1960s, defending lunch counter demonstrators during his brief legal career and housing the then-terrorized civil rights activists in a dorm when he was a Xavier dean.
When it was his time to speak, Francis praised A.P. Tureaud, the New Orleans attorney who vigorously challenged Jim Crow laws. He praised his faculty, staff and students, giving them credit for Xavier’s success. And he spoke with passion on the importance of education and the need to provide better support for teachers.
Xavier graduates were well-represented among the speakers, including Mayor LaToya Cantrell, who moved to the city in 1990 to attend Xavier University. She told Francis she remembered going to his office for advice — “and for leniency. And I stand here today because it was granted.”
Cantrell presented Francis with a key to the city and a Mayor’s City of Yes Award. “I want to say ‘thank you’ on behalf of the city of New Orleans for the countless lives that Dr. Norman C. Francis has touched,” Cantrell said. “Now it seems that historically black colleges and universities are taking their place on the national stage and the global stage, and that has been a mighty long time coming.”
Another Xavier alumnus at the ceremony was Mark Raymond, who spearheaded an online petition that set the renaming effort in motion. Addressing Francis, Raymond said that, as a Xavier student, he was too intimidated to speak to him, fearing he couldn’t live up to his example. “Men like you and my great-grandfather A.P Tureaud have always guided my vision of the type of person I wanted to be,” he said.
Raymond, who founded the Split Second Foundation after a dive into Lake Pontchartrain left him a quadriplegic, is on the Board of Commissioners for the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority and was named vice-chairman the City Council Street Renaming Commission. The Renaming Commission was formed after Raymond’s campaign convinced the mayor and City Council to remove street names honoring members of the Confederacy.
“Watching the brutal murder of George Floyd last summer enraged me, and it was the reason I started that petition,” Raymond said. “I didn’t just want to protest. I wanted to help bringing about meaningful change in our community.”
He credits the inspiration Francis provided with his ability to persevere in the face of adversity. “If it were not for you, Dr. Francis, I don’t think I’d be my ancestors’ wildest dreams,” he said.
Councilwoman at-large Helena Moreno, who helped shepherd through the ordinance to rename the former Jefferson Davis Parkway, gave Raymond credit for instigating the effort.
“Removing a Confederate moniker and instead proudly lifting up the name of a renowned African-American civil rights icon and educator caught the attention of individuals across this city, state and nation,” Moreno said, adding she received feedback from national leaders including now Vice President Kamala Harris.
Xavier alumnus Justin Augustine, who is serving as chairman of the university’s board, also used the opportunity to praise Francis. “He has inspired all of us. He has given everything to this community,” he said. “And never — I want to repeat that, never — has he asked anything in return. I’ll tell you what we say to Norman C. Francis. We say thank you. Norman C. Francis. Your legacy will be honored and remembered by the naming of this grand and beautiful parkway.”
See here for a video of the Norman C. Francis Parkway ribbon cutting.
Katherine Hart is the managing editor of NOLA Messenger. She can be reached at email@example.com.