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Elma Francois 1897-1944

November 03, 2002
by Corey Gilkes

Elma FrancoisOctober 14th marked the birth of one of the most vociferous Africentric activists in the history of Trinidad & Tobago and the Caribbean. She is Elma Constance Francois. In the study of the struggle of African people on the Continent and in the Diaspora to free themselves of European and Arab domination and redefine their existence the women who were the standard bearers of those struggles are often given less attention than their male counterparts. Even when they are acknowledged, the names of Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Angela Davis are the names spoken. Elma and her contemporaries gave the lie to the myths about meek acceptance of colonialism by the colonised and to the lack of political and social consciousness among women.

Elma Francois was born in Overland, St Vincent. In her youth she received primary education up to 5th Standard and she worked alongside her mother picking cotton. From an early age she struggles for the betterment of her people since life in St Vincent was very hard for labourers, especially women. Some could work picking up cotton chaff and separate the seeds for which they would receive 12-14 cents a day. Others worked as domestic servants while others worked at the Mt. Bentick sugar factory producing syrup or 'sweetening'. The outspoken Elma quickly set about trying to organise the labourers of Mt Bentick sugar factory where she worked - of course, she was fired.

In 1917 her son Conrad was born; in 1919 however, she was forced to leave him in the care of his grandmother for she was migrating to Trinidad where there were better opportunities. There she first found work as a domestic servant. Not surprisingly she joined the Trinidad Workingman's Association under Captain A. A. Cipriani. Cipriani, a former West India Regiment soldier, served in WWI and in spite of his ancestry was aware of the racism and squalid conditions of the working class of Trinidad. He sympathised with their plight and came to call himself the 'champion of the "barefoot" man'. He continued this after the war and in 1923 was asked to assume leadership of the TWA, which functioned as a trade union. Cipriani reorganised the TWA into a political party, a wise move since two rights conferred upon trade unions in Britain by the Act of 1906 - the right of peaceful picketing and protection against actions in tort - were not extended to unions in the Caribbean and Africa.

Unlike other women members, Francois did not restrict herself to political activity as defined by the TWA. The outspoken and confrontational Elma certainly did not fit the mould of the Western or "Afro-Saxon" woman and her personality inevitably clashed with that of Cipriani. Cipriani, though a supporter of worker's rights, favoured non-confrontational action. His outlook was also coloured by the fact that his class position as a landowner from the propertied Catholic French Creole class often presented a serious conflict of interest. Also he almost completely accepted the British labour party's brand of 'Labour and Socialism' and his adherence to their policies and priorities as a yardstick by which he measured progress in Trinidad and Tobago. On the other hand Francois preferred direct action through the workers, not employers. She clashed wit him on the question of May Day which she felt should be declared a public holiday.

She was an avid reader, very conscious about her African heritage and loved nothing better than to engage people in debates. She was also one of the few people with the courage to challenge the Church and the authority of the bible. Elma spoke in Woodford Square (an open-air park in Port-of-Spain where to this day people gather to argue social, religious and political views), on street corners, in various towns. This is how she met Jim Headley who, together with Francois, became a founding member of the Negro Welfare Cultural and Social Association [NWCSA].

The Marxist oriented NWCSA, though it was committed to the empowerment of people of African descent, also had Indian and Chinese members. Also, from its inception it set out to attract women, hence the inclusion of the words 'cultural and 'social' as these were the areas of work in which, it was felt, women could initially be most easily incorporated. The organisation took the position that women and men should cooperate in the development of their collective political consciousness. There was no separation of women into 'women's arms/auxiliaries' and within the organisation executive positions changed regularly so that these responsibilities were shared equally. Elma usually, however, retained the position of Organising Secretary.

The NWCSA organised the unemployed, celebrated Emancipation Day, lobbied for small traders. Their "hunger marches" provided the impetus for the sugar workers' Hunger March of 1934 and the 1935 Hunger March of another radical thinking leader, TUB Butler. The NWCSA was responsible for galvanising national response against the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 - the outcry was so great that many dockworkers refused to unload Italian ships. The NWCSA was responsible for the formation of the Seamen and Waterfront Workers Trade Union and the Federated Workers Trade Union.

During the famous "Butler Riots" of 1937, the NWCSA mobilised support for the striking oil workers, held meetings in the north and the turbulent south Trinidad, partly under the auspices of Butler's party the British Empire Workers and Citizens Home Rule Party. All this was done in spite of harassment by the police and their attempts to infiltrate the party's meetings. The NWCSA also circulated false reports regarding Butler's whereabouts when he was in hiding. Elma was eventually arrested. She became the first woman in Trinidad's history to be tried for sedition. She defended herself and was found not guilty.

In 1944 Elma Francois died; the result, some say of a broken heart after her son Conrad joined the army to fight in a war in which she bitterly opposed the black involvement. She, along with fellow party members Jim Barrette, Clement Payne had publicly disagreed with the showing of solidarity to the British Crown on the grounds that the Western allies had allowed the rise of Hitler as a counter to Stalin in the Soviet Union. It was only when Hitler turned on them that they mobilised militarily to defend themselves and in the process drew in colonials, whom they otherwise discriminated against racially, to fight and die with them in their war. There certainly was a strong thread of anti-British sentiment at first; several leading calypsonians [folk singers] sang against the war and in his autobiography Through a maze of Colour Albert Gomes noted that cinema crowds cheered when film clips showed the British being defeated by Nazi forces. However, by 1940, colonial propaganda, plus the withholding of the Report of the Moyne Commission, which investigated the causes of labour riots in the Caribbean, had intensified to the point where loyalty to the Crown became the dominant outlook on the war. Francois was understandably crushed when she learned about Conrad's decision to enlist. She regarded his decision to enlist as a personal failure on her part.

On September 25 1987, Elma Francois was declared a national heroine of Trinidad and Tobago.

For additional reading of Elma Francois and the labour struggles in Trinidad read:

¤ Elma Francois: the NWCSA and the workers struggle for change in the Caribbean in the 1930's - Rhoda Reddock

¤ Trinidad labour Riots of 1937 - Roy Thomas [ed]

¤ Smiles and Blood - Susan Craig-James

¤ Caribbean Freedom: Economy and Society from Emancipation to the Present - Hilary Beckles and Verene Shepherd [ed]

¤ Calypso and Society in pre-Indepedence Trinidad - Gordon Rohler

¤ Atilla kaiso: a shorthistory of Trinidad Calypso - Raymond Quevedo [Atilla the Hun]

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