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New documentary covers Dr. Norman C. Francis, longtime president of XULA

A new PBS film will shine a light on the life and legacy of one of America's most impactful educators—who also happens to be a Black Catholic.

Dr. Norman Francis, president emeritus of Xavier University of Louisiana, with journalist Thanh Truong, producer of the new documentary on Francis' life. (Dominic Massa/Twitter)

Dr. Norman C. Francis: A Legacy of Leadership,” a new documentary covering the life and legacy of the eminent Black Catholic scholar and activist from New Orleans, will premiere this week on local TV and online.

The news was announced last month by Dominic Massa, CEO of local PBS affiliate WYES, which is behind the new project.

“The retired Xavier University of Louisiana president is a living legend, an icon worthy of every tribute he has earned during a more than 70-year long career,” reads a statement on the film from WYES.

Scheduled to air on WYES-TV on Tuesday, September 27 at 8pm CT, the one-hour film will feature an extensive one-on-one interview with Francis, archival footage, and an overview of the world-class educator, widely regarded as one of the most successful university administrators in US history.

A number of Francis’ fellow Black Catholics were also interviewed, including National Urban League president Marc Morial (and his mother Sybil), the late Moon Landrieu, and sitting XULA president Dr. C. Reynold Verret.

Though best known for serving nearly 50 years as the first Black and first lay president of the nation’s Catholic HBCU, Francis’ numerous other accomplishments include desegregating Loyola University New Orleans as a law student in 1955, covertly housing the 1961 Freedom Riders on XULA’s campus, co-founding the city’s first Black bank, and receiving the President Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush.

Francis also assisted the recovery of New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina, the devastating storm that ravaged the city in 2005, including the campus of XULA. He co-chaired the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the government body created in its aftermath by Governor Kathleen Blanco.

After his retirement, in 2019 Francis won the Laetare Medal from the University of Notre Dame, the nation’s highest honor for Catholics, and a major thoroughfare in New Orleans was renamed after him last year. He has also been the recipient of over 40 honorary degrees and served on a number of national and international boards and committees, including at the Vatican.

Raised a devout Catholic (whose brother Joseph later became a bishop), Francis was reared in the heart of Acadiana in Lafayette, Louisiana, and maintained his connections to the state throughout his career—even while serving in the military and later working for the US Attorney’s Office to desegregate federal agencies.

Now 91 years old, Francis has continued to receive accolades from the local community, including the renaming of Loyola New Orleans’ largest student residence hall in his family’s honor earlier this summer.

“Dr. Francis believes that education is the true path to diversity, equity and inclusion,” said interim Loyola president Fr Justin Daffron, SJ.

“Throughout his lifetime, he has worked to widen access and opportunity, so that all people may develop to their fullest potential.”

Francis was present for a special screening of the new film held at the WYES offices last week in New Orleans, alongside producer Thanh Truong and narrator Sally-Ann Roberts.

In addition to its local TV premiere, the new documentary will stream locally on the WYES website and the station’s smartphone app, as well as for a limited time on the WYES YouTube channel.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).

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