Celebration Black History MonthOne of the most prominent citizens of his time, Carl Emanuel Francis’s legacy of community activism endures to this day.
The son of a former slave, Carl Francis was born on St. John on May 13, 1867, the oldest of George and Lucy Blyden Francis’s five children. While a simple history of the great man would spell out his achievements, a look further back in time is needed in order to fully understand the importance of Francis’s endeavors.
“His rise to prominence in a period of declining fortunes and harsh social injustice is an intriguing story from any perspective,” according “A Portrait for the Pastor: A brief summary of the life and heritage of Carl Emanuel Francis of St. John,” by local historian David Knight. “But, to fully grasp the breadth of his character, one must first explore the historical context of his development and the roots of his heritage.”
The first part of the nineteenth century was a violent time on plantations across the Danish West Indies and especially on the small island of St. John.
“Nowhere in the colony was this situation so apparent as on the isolated estates of St. John, where one or two hired overseers were generally responsible for controlling large enslaved populations that often outnumbered them more than fifty to one,” wrote Knight. “Under such conditions tensions ran high and during this period one overseer on the Annaberg sugar plantation was poisoned, while another died under suspicious circumstances. Force, therefore, was often seen as a necessary deterrent, and punishments such as detainment or restraint in the properties’ stocks were dealt out liberally by overseers.”
Young George Francis lived in a large slave village at the Annaberg sugar plantation during these times of violence. Throughout this time, however, George Francis seems to have kept his eye on the future and worked hard to gain respect, according to “A Portrait for the Pastor.”
“Already a widower by age nineteen, George (Francis) worked diligently to gain the respect of his fellow workers, as well as his influential master, Hans H. Berg.,” wrote Knight. “By the time the 1846 census was compiled, (George) Francis was among the most trusted of the estates’ enslaved laborers.”
Although emancipation was declared in the Danish colony in 1848, harsh contract labor codes meant that most formerly enslaved workers had no choice but to remain on the plantations.
Such was the case with George Francis, who had married Hester Dalinda sometime around 1845, and had moved up to the position of leader of the “work gangs,” according to “A Portrait for the Pastor.”
“Over the course of the succeeding decades, George Francis encountered opportunities that in his youth must have seemed unimaginable,” wrote Knight. “In the 1860 census for Annaberg, (George) Francis’s position was listed as estate ‘overseer’ and two years later he received a clear and outright title to a two-acre parcel of land on Mary’s Point by the will of his former master, Hans H. Berg. But, George Francis’s ambitions did not stop there.”
“Through hard work and frugality he managed to save enough money for a down payment on the remainder of the Mary’s Point property when it came up for auction during Hans Berg’s probate reconciliation,” according to “A Portrait for the Pastor.”
After burying his second wife Hester, George Francis married Lucy Ann Blyden and the couple set up house on Mary’s Point. While working the Mary’s Point property and planting crops, George Francis was always looking for additional opportunities for advancement.
$100 for Leinster Bay, Annaberg
“In 1871, George Francis encountered what was perhaps his greatest opportunity,” wrote Knight. “After the buildings and crops on the Annaberg and Leinster Bay plantations were destroyed in back-to-back hurricane and earthquakes in 1867, the owner of the estates, Thomas Letsom Loyd, fell heavily into debt and could not afford to rebuild the properties.”
“After enduring years of pressure from his creditors, Loyd finally ‘quit’ the colony to evade his obligations,” according to Knight’s biography. “Upon his departure, Loyd signed over title to both Annaberg and Leinster Bay to his former property manager, George Francis, for the sum of $100.”
In 1875, after constructing a small sugar factory at Mary’s Point and re-introducing sugar cane on his properties, George Francis died, leaving his vast properties in the care of his widow and children.
Carl Francis was only eight years old when his father passed, and the young boy was to grow up quickly.
“After George’s death the Francis family valiantly struggled to maintain the quality of life they had worked so long to achieve, but with labor difficulties, diminishing revenues, and mounting debts, they soon began to feel the sting of poverty,” wrote Knight. “As young men, Carl and his brother Fritz were forced to leave St. John in search of economic opportunity. As was the case with so many Virgin Islanders of the time, Carl emigrated to the Dominican Republic where he found work in that country’s active agricultural sector.”
Carl Francis worked in the Dominican Republic for about 12 years, during which time he sent money back to his family in St. John.
“By 1900, while still residing in the Dominican Republic, Carl Francis had accumulated enough capital to secure, or re-acquire, much of his family’s property on St. John — including Estate Annaberg, which had been put up for for auction due to nonpayment of taxes,” according to “A Portrait for the Pastor.” “After his mother’s death in 1901, Carl returned to St. John and took up his rightful place as head of household in the Francis home at Mary’s Point. With strength and conviction he vigorously set out to redevelop the family’s long-neglected land holdings.”
After first experimenting with crops, Carl Francis turned to animal husbandry and eventually became a “well established and prosperous cattle dealer,” according to Knight.
During this time, Carl Francis also became involved in community affairs which would continue to be a central part of his life.
In 1909, Carl Francis married Amy Elizabeth Penn in the Emmaus Moravian Church in Coral Bay and the couple set up house “amidst the the ruins of the former Annaberg sugar factory,” according to “A Portrait for the Pastor.”
“Throughout these years Carl (Francis) continued to be active in community affairs,” wrote Knight. “While as a younger man he attended th Moravian Church and stated his religion as Moravian in the 1911 census, he later served for fifteen years as clerk and lay reader to the Lutheran Congregation on St. John.”
Religious leader was just one of Carl Francis’s several community roles.
“For many years (Carl) Francis held the title of Maho Bay Quarter Officer, a position that carried broad responsibilities for a large section of the island, and in 1913 he was honored by Gov. Helweg-Larsen with an appointment to the colony’s governing body, the Colonial Council, in which he served for two decades,” wrote Knight. “As St. John’s highest ranking representative, it was Carl Francis who was chosen to hoist the first American flag over government headquarters on St. John during the island’s formal ceremony of the transfer of the Danish West Indies to the United States on April 15, 1917.”
Public Works, Police and More
While Carl Francis held something like the role of a modern police constable during his time, he was responsible for much more, according to Ruth Moolenaar’s “Profiles of Outstanding Virgin Islanders.”
“The system changed in the early 1920s under American rule but Francis was retained in his position which carried additional responsibilities,” wrote Moolenaar. “He was appointed by the governor with jurisdiction over a specific section of the island. He was also jointly responsible with other officials for law enforcement and was immediate supervisor of several civilian ‘constables’ who reported through him to the government representatives at headquarters, Cruz Bay.”
“He also served as the liaison on road maintenance and other public works functions in his district,” according to “Profiles of Outstanding Virgin Islanders.”
Due to failing health, Carl Francis retired from public service 1933 and died on St. Thomas on October 26, 1936, at the age of 89, according to Moolenaar.
“Staunch Advocate” for Improvements
“To the end Carl Francis remained a staunch advocate for improved inter-island communications, an expanded and accessible educational system, and the establishment of an agricultural bank that would make affordable loans available to small farmers and encourage self-sufficiency,” according to Knight’s “Portrait for the Pastor.” “Even today, Carl Francis’s name is spoken with reverence and respect on the island of St. John: a very remarkable man indeed.”