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There during some of Sac State's formative years, Anthony Francis is here now to help show why it matters

Anthony Francis grew up in an impoverished, segregated section of New Orleans in the 1930s, when few Black children dared to dream of attending college.

Anthony Francis holds a photo of himself from his graduation.
Anthony Francis displays a photo of himself in Sacramento State Commencement regalia, which he wore for his 1957 graduation. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

But he was never discouraged by his circumstances. He was determined to lift himself up through education.

After high school, he enrolled at Dillard University, a private, historically Black institution in his hometown. Then, after a stint in the military, he found his way to Sacramento State, where in 1957 he earned a Social Science degree. He later received a master's degree in Public Administration from the University of Southern California.

Now 96 years old, Francis is one of Sac State's oldest living graduates. The University's ongoing 75th Anniversary celebration is special to him.

"It blows my mind how much Sac State has grown," said Francis, speaking at his son Rene's home in Elk Grove. "I never would have believed that the University is as big as it is, not only in size, but in all of its offerings."

When he graduated, 5,709 students attended Sac State, then Sacramento State College. In 2022, the student population was more than 31,000, with scholars working toward degrees in dozens of disciplines across seven academic colleges. One in 18 adults in the Sacramento region is a graduate of the University, one of the most ethnically diverse in the Western United States.

Francis and his late wife, Noella, who also graduated from Sac State, have served as role models in their family. Their son Rene is a Sac State graduate, as are other extended family members.

Born on Valentine's Day in 1927, Francis has three younger sisters. His parents, George and Josephine Francis, worked hard to keep their family comfortable as they were growing up. Josephine was a homemaker, George a "self-taught barber, mechanic, chauffeur, whatever he could find to support us," Anthony Francis said.

"We were not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, but my childhood was mostly happy."

Their home lacked electricity and running water. The family bathed in a tin tub, read by the light of a kerosene lamp, and cooked on a potbelly stove. Black people were unwelcomed in many New Orleans neighborhoods, schools were strictly segregated, and "colored only" sections of public transportation, restaurants, and other businesses were commonplace.

"We did have some educated Black people in our area, because they weren't allowed to live in the white sections of the city," Francis said. "They influenced my desire to get an education and move up. They showed me that I could succeed."

Francis's family encouraged him to go to college, and after high school, he enrolled at Dillard. He had a tenor voice and loved to sing, performing at local weddings and other celebrations, and worked at the New Orleans Port of Embarkation as World War II wound down.

"I can't think of a single negative thing about Sac State. It was strictly business for me, because I had kids by then, and I also was working. But all of my experiences were positive." -- Anthony Francis

Francis moved to California in 1946 after a family member told him college would be cheaper there than in New Orleans. He was drafted by the U.S. Army four years later. After reporting to Fort Ord near Monterey for processing, he worked as a supply sergeant in Europe, mostly in France. Following his honorable discharge, he returned to California and took a job as a clerk with the state Department of Employment.

By the time he enrolled at Sacramento State in 1954, the same year the Supreme Court ruled segregation in public education to be unconstitutional, he was married and a father to the first of four children.

He distinctly remembers "three or four" buildings on campus, including a cafeteria that served delicious hamburgers and strong coffee, Douglass Hall, and the library, where he did much of his studying. He recalls at least three other Black students on campus.

Francis said he never experienced overt racism while pursuing his degree, though he was keenly aware that many Americans held "deep resentment, even hatred" toward people of color.

"I felt elated because I was going to college," Francis said. "It was something I always wanted to do. The professors were enthusiastic. I had some really good professors.

"I can't think of a single negative thing about Sac State. It was strictly business for me, because I had kids by then, and I also was working. But all of my experiences were positive."

A Bachelor of Arts degree from Sacramento State.
The Bachelor of Arts degree presented to Anthony Francis. (Courtesy Anthony Francis)

Outside of school, Francis was a "consummate reader" who each day tested his four young children on their understanding of local newspaper stories, his son Rene recalled. He was a doting father and husband who cooked gourmet meals for his family, taught his kids about various cultures, and served as equipment manager for his children's Little League youth baseball team in Oak Park.

Raising a family, working, and attending school simultaneously was a challenge, Anthony Francis said. "But there's a thing called persistence, an ability to fight through the struggle. That's what I had."

Upon graduation, he said, "It was hurray! Happiness! I finally hit the ball over the fence. I hit a home run."

Rene Francis was only 3 years old when his father received his diploma, but he remembers the day his dad proudly walked across the stage at Commencement. It was a defining moment for the family.

Anthony Francis became a career civil servant after college, working in various state agencies, including the Office of the Attorney General and the Department of Social Services. He rose to upper management, retiring as a bureau chief, and later held several jobs as a retired annuitant. He stopped working for good in 1994.

Years later, when his grandniece, Stephanie Francis, a Sac State staff member, was hosting a recruitment session as part of her work with the University's MLK Business Resource Group, Anthony Francis delivered words of wisdom and encouragement to students.

"The majority of the students in the room were African American, Latino, and first-generation," said Stephanie Francis, currently interim associate director of the Career Center. Students were "awestruck" and inspired to hear his stories of college life in the 1950s.

"It was motivational for me, too, because it helped me understand the significance of Sac State's role in my family history," she said. "It drew me even closer to the students I serve."

Anthony Francis enjoys getting together with relatives, listening to music, especially jazz, reading, and watching his beloved New Orleans Saints on television.

Francis, who has an elegant demeanor and a healthy head of gray hair, said he looks forward to a future full of family celebrations, noting that longevity runs in much of his family. Although his mother died in her 60s, his father lived to 112 and at the time of his death in 2008 held the title of the nation's oldest man. Francis' three sisters are in their 90s.

His two greatest accomplishments in life, he said, are his family and his college degrees.

"Having a wonderful wife, and wonderful children, are the most important things, along with my education," he said.

"If I were to offer any advice to current students at Sac State, it would be to really analyze what would be their perfect career, and pursue it," Francis said.

"Question the curricula, question authority. Also, work hard to make contributions. Don't just say you don't like something. Figure out what you intend to do to change it."

A 96-year-old alumnus visits Sac State's new president in his office.
Anthony Francis, left, visits the Sacramento State campus on July 14, 2023, and meets with new President Luke Wood, also a Sac State alumnus. (Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)


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About Cynthia Hubert

Cynthia Hubert came to Sacramento State in November 2018 after an award-winning career writing for the Sacramento Bee. Cynthia believes everyone has a good story. She lives in East Sacramento with her two cats, who enjoy bird-watching from their perch next to the living-room window.

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