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New Orleans renames street to honor longtime Xavier U. president

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NEW ORLEANS -- The New Orleans City Council voted unanimously Aug. 20 to rename Jefferson Davis Parkway, which since 1911 had paid homage to the slaveholding president of the Confederacy during the Civil War, in honor of Norman C. Francis, who served for nearly a half-century as president of Xavier University of Louisiana.

The change to Norman C. Francis Parkway, which borders the campus of Xavier University of Louisiana, will take place Jan. 1.

The university was founded by St. Katharine Drexel, the Philadelphia heiress who established the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in 1891 to educate and minister to African Americans and Native Americans throughout the U.S. Xavier is the only historically Black Catholic university in the Western Hemisphere.

Francis, 89, served from 1968 to 2015 as the first lay president of Xavier -- he was appointed on the same day that Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis -- and he was universally acknowledged as the driving force behind an institution that outpaces all others in the number of African American students annually accepted into medical schools across the United States.

Francis often remarked that Xavier was blessed not only by St. Katharine's early presence and fortune in establishing the university in 1925, but also by the saint's longevity. She died in 1955 at age 96, and one of the stipulations of her inheritance was that it would be dispersed after her death to specific causes established by her parents in their will.

Because she lived such a long life, her ongoing funding supported Xavier through its initial lean years and was a true "miracle," Francis often remarked.

"I am most grateful that the city of New Orleans has named a street in my honor, particularly one that borders Xavier University, an institution that I have called home for more than a half century (as a student, administrator and president)," Francis said in a statement. "And I am extremely appreciative of everyone who supported this effort, most importantly, Mayor LaToya Cantrell, the City Council and those who wrote letters, editorials and signed petitions in support.

"St. Katharine Drexel and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament trusted me to serve Xavier and make it an integral part of this community. I share this acknowledgment with them and my Xavier colleagues. I am truly honored and humbled by this recognition," Francis said.

The renaming of Jefferson Davis Parkway is the first of what is anticipated to be several name changes to New Orleans streets that currently honor those who served in the Confederacy during the Civil War or who owned slaves or supported white supremacy.

The New Orleans City Council has appointed a commission that will make recommendations on renaming other streets, parks and other public sites.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020