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Abner H. Francis
Abner Hunt Francis, though native to New Jersey, travelled across the United States and Canada with his wife throughout their lifetime . It is this travel in conjunction with his on-going newspaper publications that marks Francis’ role in the 1843 National Colored Convention and, more broadly, his political activism.
Born on a small farm in Flemmington, New Jersey around 1813, Abner Hunt Francis was gifted with access to education . His father’s farm earned enough money to allow Francis to receive “a good English education” . After completing school in New Jersey, Francis travelled to New York where he continued his education of mathematics and bookkeeping and where he trained as a tailor .
Francis’ activism and entrepreneurial activities escalated while he lived in Brooklyn, New York. There, he opened his first clothing business with Robert Banks, which gave him an edge in New York society. The business was very successful, raking in approximately $60,000 a year . Francis’ success in activism is speculated to be due to his affluence as well as his conversational charisma . Since fashion was a major social influence during the second half of the nineteenth century, Francis’ business allowed him the opportunity to interact with and influence a variety of people. During his time in Brooklyn, Francis became a “leading member of the integrated Buffalo Anti-Slavery Society” and was appointed as one of the secretaries to the 1843 Colored Convention in Buffalo . Francis was particularly involved in impacting his local African American community. He protested for improving education and the school system for African American children . These protests eventually became a regular occurrence in the Buffalo area .
Francis’ involvement at the 1843 Colored Convention is an example of his public advocacy for equal rights. At the convention, Francis served as a secretary, but he was also appointed to the committee that was designated to report on “the condition of the colored people” . Here, he and other committee members gave reports on statistics pertaining to Black communities as well as the circumstances of African American life in various parts of the nation .
During Francis’ time in New York he married Sydna Edmonia Robella, both described as being of mulatto descent in the 1850 U.S. Census . In 1843, their daughter, Theodosia Gertrude, was born . Sydna, child of John and Charlotte Dandridge, moved with her family from her birth state of Virginia due to her father getting a job as a waiter in New York . While in Buffalo, Sydna was secretary of the Female Dorcas Society as well as President of the Ladies’ Literary and Progressive Improvement Society of Buffalo . As Sydna describes in a letter to Frederick Douglass, the Ladies’ Literary and Progressive Improvement Society of Buffalo was the only female group formed to improve “the moral intellectual, political, and social advancement” of its members (African American females in Buffalo) by promoting literature, art and sciences that encourage “political reform” . Sydna’s strategy is akin to her husband’s as she attempted to publicize and spread awareness about social reform whenever she could. For instance, after the Ladies’ Literary and Progressive Improvement Society of Buffalo received a donation from the Independent Order of Daughter of Temperance, Sydna wrote to Frederick Douglass's North Star newspaper seeking to publicize the news .
It is also possible that Sydna utilized her husband’s social influence to advance the agenda of the organizations she led. On February 7, 1849, Abner Francis wrote a letter to Gerrit Smith because he was requested “…by an association of ladies to address a line to you on a subject of considerable importance to them…” . The white political abolitionist Gerrit Smith fought for African Americans rights and to extinguish slavery throughout his lifetime . The letter does not detail what topic the “Ladies of Buffalo” wished to discuss with Mr. Smith, but urged Mr. Smith to visit Buffalo . On November 12th of that same year, Mr. Smith was awarded the “Silver Pitcher” at a private ceremony . The Silver Pitcher was presented to Mr. Smith on behalf of Francis, Henry Highland Garnet and “the Colored ladies of Buffalo” . He was awarded the Silver Pitcher because of his activism according to a speech made by Garnet . The proceedings of the ceremony were recorded and published in the Impartial Citizen newspaper. Both the letter and the article imply that honoring Gerrit Smith was a project the ladies of Buffalo designed and organized, but they also required the aid of their male associates, Francis and Garnet.
By 1848, Francis and his family moved to California. This was perhaps because they believed in the rumor that the West provided more opportunities for social and economic improvement . Unfortunately, Francis ultimately experienced social and economic decline in his time in the West. Though Francis owned a property worth approximately $12,000 in San Francisco for years after he first arrived, he and his family moved to Portland, Oregon by 1851 to open up two other businesses: a clothing store as well as a boarding house .
In Oregon, Francis and his family experienced social turmoil. In 1849, when Francis, Sydna and Theodosia, arrived in Portland, they were met with a relative, O.B. Francis’ struggle with Portland’s exclusion law . Even though Oregon was then considered a free state, the state’s legislation over race was a highly debated topic. The exclusion law was a piece of legislation that mandated that any free blacks who were over the age of 18 had to leave Oregon within two to three years of being notified . Under this law, O.B. Francis, and shortly thereafter Francis and his family, were being forced to leave the state. Immediately upon his arrival, Abner began fighting the law. In his third letter to Fredrick Douglass that was published in the North Star, Francis details the accounts of the brothers’ fight to remain in Oregon. In this letter he discussed the noble and inspiring speech by his lawyer, the outrageous nature of the law and Francis’ belief that the law would soon be repealed . In addition to this letter, Francis wrote a petition demanding the repeal of the exclusion laws on the basis, “that all classes of honest and industrious men may have an equal chance” . This petition was signed by 225 Oregon residents and successfully passed, allowing African Americans to remain in the state .
Despite the success of the petition, Francis and his wife moved to Victoria, British Colombia to evade creditors . In Victoria, Francis again utilized his social influence to become a city councilman on November 14th, 1865 . Shortly after appointed to office, his position was challenged due to a clerical error during the election process . Shortly after his election was contested, Francis resigned . During his time in Victoria, Francis remained in the public eye as he continued to write published letters and articles for newspapers. In his letter to Philip A. Bell, which was later publicized in the Elevator newspaper, Francis reports on the social, political and economic affairs of all the citizens in Victoria, such as Governor Kennedy’s liberal stance, the economic depression in Victoria and the decreasing racial prejudice . The letter suggests that Bell and Francis continued correspondence as social progress was made.
To support his affluent lifestyle, Francis opened another clothing store. The store was uninsured and burned down, which initiated another Francis family financial decline . Together, he and his business partner rebuilt their store. Francis died two years after it originally burned down . Abner Francis died on March 27, 1872 at the age of 60 . Even though the business was rebuilt, Sydna Francis was saddled with debt and was forced to sell their Broad Street home . Sydna survived her husband for another 17 years until her death on May 11, 1889 . When she died, Sydna Francis’ occupation was listed as a housekeeper with a net worth of only $200 .
Written by Heather Sinkinson, English 139 taught by Kimberly Blockett, Pennsylvania State University, Spring 2014
Edited by Sarah Patterson, Curator
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