Former Xavier-Louisiana president honored by Notre Dame
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The retired president of the only historically black and Catholic university in the U.S. will receive what Notre Dame University calls the most prestigious award for American Catholics.
The Laetare Medal will be given May 19 to Norman Francis, who was president for 47 years at Xavier University of Louisiana, Notre Dame announced Sunday.
“For more than 50 years, Dr. Francis has been at the center of civil rights advocacy by leveraging the power of Catholic higher education,” Notre Dame President Rev. John I. Jenkins said in a news release. “In bestowing the Laetare Medal upon him, Notre Dame recognizes his leadership in the fight for social justice through educational empowerment.”
During Francis’ tenure, enrollment nearly tripled, the endowment grew eightfold, and the university became the leading producer of African-American undergraduates who complete medical school. Xavier also ranks first nationally in the number of black students earning undergraduate degrees in four areas: biology and life sciences, chemistry, physics and pharmacy.
Francis, who retired in 2015, is the second New Orleans resident in four years to receive the Laetare Medal. In 2015, it went to musician Aaron Neville.
Xavier was founded in 1925 by St. Katharine Drexel, after the U.S. Supreme Court found “separate but equal” education constitutional. Drexel’s philanthropy also paid for the Catholic schools that Francis attended in Lafayette, Louisiana, as a child.
He graduated from Xavier in 1952 and became the first African-American admitted to Loyola University Law School in New Orleans.
“I did not build Xavier; I was part of Katharine Drexel’s mission to provide a quality education for all,” Francis said. “All the people I worked with were part of this plan and mission, which was not only honorable, but was totally necessary when you look back at what the United States was at the time.”
After time in the Army and at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, where he helped integrate federal agencies, he became Xavier’s dean of men in 1957. Four years later, he opened a school dormitory to Freedom Riders after the civil rights group’s bus was bombed in Alabama.
He recalled telling the school’s president, “No room at the inn? We’re a Catholic school. We got to open the dorm,” The New Orleans Advocate reported in 2014.
In 1968, Francis became the first African-American and the first lay person to be named Xavier’s president. He had the school back open five months after Hurricane Katrina flooded the city, including Xavier’s campus, in 2005. He also chaired the Louisiana Recovery Authority.
Notre Dame gave him an honorary doctor of laws degree in 1988 for his commitment to education and civil rights and gave him a rare second honorary doctorate in 2006. That same year, President Bush gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.