From the Louisiana Weekly
Dr. Norman C. Francis lived here. Confederate President Jefferson Davis merely died here.
In the discussion to rename the picturesque, bicycle-pathed parkway stretching from Bayou St. John to Washington Avenue, that distinction alone should be enough to decide a street’s name.
Yet, the termed “lived” hardly grants enough credit to Dr. Norman C. Francis. Over his 50-year presidency, he breathed new life to the college founded by St. Katharine Drexel, transforming Xavier University into one of the most renowned centers for biomedical and pharmaceutical education in the nation. More importantly, Dr. Francis brought alive her dream to create a Center of African-American Catholic Higher Education venerated throughout the world.
No medieval cathedral builder could have constructed an altar more worthy for a saint. Should we not honor that architect on the very avenue that runs alongside the collegiate halls he inaugurated?
Most notably, while Xavier University statuesquely stands in the shadow of the Parkway, Jefferson Davis no longer sits upon his pedestal. He neither looks out from his monument on the neutral ground, nor holds much affection in the city of his demise. It’s easy to remember that Jefferson Davis Parkway received that moniker neither in the two years that New Orleans was bound to the Confederacy, nor in the months after the former secessionist president’s death amidst a visit to a home on First Street in the Garden District.
The Jefferson Davis statue (and the parkway named in its honor) were created years after his passing as monuments to segregation. Neither the granite edifice nor pathways around had the principal purpose of honoring the man. Newspaper accounts at the time record how they were literally pounded into the ground as “eternal” symbols of white supremacy. The “Whites Only” dedication of the statue and street on February 22, 1911 stands as testament to the real political purpose behind their construction. Hardly surprising then that the New Orleans City Council decided to vote 6-0 to remove Jefferson Davis’ name from the street signs last Thursday.
“Norman Francis” will take his place on the Parkway – a tribute to a man who truly “lived” the mission of uniting and uplifting the people of New Orleans. Not enough newsprint on this page exists to chronicle the number of civic organizations he led or the unpaid public work that the university president undertook to bring all ethnicities of this city together. In contrast, both in life and death, Jefferson Davis ripped our country and our races apart.
This article originally published in the June 22, 2020 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.