Victor Francis was a man of principle who stood up for himself and others, said his daughter Marilyn Francis minutes after Annapolis Royal Mayor Bill MacDonald unveiled a plaque honouring her late father.
In 1972, Victor Francis, an African Nova Scotian from Lequille, stood up for himself and a colleague when they were let go by the Town of Annapolis Royal in what he believed was a case of racial discrimination. He filed a human rights complaint against the town – and won.
The current council learned about the 47-year-old human rights complaint after a local high school student interviewed Victor Francis for a school paper several years ago and then read it to town council. In fact, council was so taken by her school report they asked her back to read it again.
The student, Abigail Bonnington, now a first-year student at Dalhousie University, wrote that a white foreman had left his job to move to Middleton so the Town of Annapolis Royal was hiring.
“Victor applied for the job and was accepted along with another African Canadian, although they were to be employed as lesser workmen,” she wrote. “In the fall, six months later, they hired another white man on as foreman and let Victor and his colleague go. It was because of this that Victor launched his case against the town.”
A plaque, that Francis family members said was supposed to be on the wall at town hall to mark the human rights victory by the elder Francis, disappeared years ago. After interviewing Victor Francis, Bonnington went to look for the plaque but it wasn’t there. Marilyn Francis looked as well and when it became obvious there was no plaque, she asked MacDonald about it.
“Where that plaque went to no one knows. We did all the research that we could. We looked high and low for it,” said MacDonald. “We spoke to CAOs years and years and decades back.”
No one remembered it.
“That’s an unsatisfactory resolution for myself as the mayor and for the members of this council,” he said. Council wanted to set things right with a new plaque of black marble.
“Standing up against discrimination in the workforce, Victor E. Francis’ Human Rights complaint inspired a resolution in 1972 to establish a Community Relations Committee – in consultation with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission and the Black United Front of Nova Scotia,” the plaque reads.
“On February 19, 2019, the Mayor and Council of the Town of Annapolis Royal recognized the courage of Victor Francis and his message of equality – then, now, and forever in the Town of Annapolis Royal. May the past inspire the best in all of us.”
MacDonald said the Feb. 19 presentation came about after he did a lot of digging to find out exactly what had happened in 1972 and where the plaque might be.
“We wanted to repair that in any way we could,” MacDonald said before inviting Victor’s daughter Marilyn, his brother Kenny, and his nephew Malcolm to the front of council chambers to see the plaque.
“Everyone liked my father,” said Marilyn Francis. “He was a very likeable man. He’d do anything for you. He was a man of principle. He never talked mean about anybody. He was a nice man. A hard worker. Took care of his family.”
MacDonald said people in the community must also take care of each other.
“As politicians, and as citizens, we need to be vigilant against any hint of discrimination or racism in our communities,” he said. “We have a responsibility to acknowledge historic wrongs – some of which might be more recent than we want to admit – calling upon our communities to be the best they can be.”
Victor Francis described Lequille as perhaps less racist than most places, and as a youngster he ran off to join the circus for two years, spending time in the Deep South. But a black man still couldn’t get a haircut in Lequille until 1954 and men and women who worked in Annapolis weren’t allowed to eat with their white co-workers.
“I felt good,” said Marilyn Francis after the plaque to her father was unveiled. “Whoever took it down (the first plaque) erased what was done. Now it’s back where it should be.”
“Being an African Canadian has clearly resulted in challenges growing up,” said Bonnington in her paper. “However, he has always fought to stand up for what he believes is right, empowering himself and others around him. What is clear, though, through all of this, is that a great deal more needs to be done to ensure as much as can be achieved. The challenge is there for all of us; we need only accept it.”
While Marilyn Francis appreciates what the Town if Annapolis Royal did by creating a new plaque, she said discrimination is not dead.
Sadly, Victor Francis didn’t live long enough to see the new plaque installed at town hall. He died on Jan. 8, 2018. But in Bonnington’s paper, he lamented racism was starting to rear its ugly head again.
“Like my dad said, the only way you’re going to get rid of racism is if everybody is the same colour,” Marilyn Francis said. “That’s the only way.”
Asked what her father would think of the current council’s actions, she thought he would have approved. “My dad, he’s up there smiling down,” she said. “He can see what’s going on. He knows.”
And if that plaque goes missing again? Mayor MacDonald had two engraved and presented the second one to Marilyn Francis. Just in case.