In The Steps of Esteban: Tucson's African American Heritage

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Clarence Francis

Summary of a 1991 oral history by V. Woodard; 1996

Clarence Francis was raised in San Antonio, Texas. His father, Israel Francis, was a farmer, growing cotton, corn and grain. He had 7 brothers and sisters. After high school, Clarence attended Garden Luke College in San Antonio, Texas. He was forced to leave school after one year because drought and the national economic depression made it necessary for him to find work to help support his family. He worked as a chauffeur, garage hand and hotel baggage clerk.

Clarence Francis came to Tucson in 1937, accepting a job offer at the Santa Rita Hotel as a bellhop and general service workman. Later he worked for the Sundt Construction Company, and then for O'Reilly Chevrolet.

Clarence purchased a house near "A" Mountain. At that point there were just 10 families living there. The neighborhood just had African-American families, as they were restricted from living in many other areas of town. He and his wife, Ethel Mundine Francis, are still active and respected members of the "A" Mountain neighborhood.

Summary of an Interview with Clarence Francis
by Vincent Woodard

Heroes are not only those who led civil rights marches and fought bravely in wars for the United States (e.g., the Buffalo Soldiers), but heroes are also those who were willing to brave a foreign landscape and risk all family connection for the opportunity to work and have financial security. Mr. Francis had never been west of his home town, San Antonio, Texas, when he decided in 1937, because famine had struck the crops, to migrate to Tucson, Arizona, in response to a job offered at the Santa Rita Hotel as a bellhop and general service workman.

I chose Mr. Francis as an early Tucson settler to Tucson not because he's my godfather but because he is a vital and respected presence in the "A" Mountain community. Those who know him well describe Mr. Francis as kind and generous. We talked in the comfort of his whitewashed, adobe, desert home where he lives with his wife of thirty-nine years, Ethel Mundine Francis. Standing about five feet eleven inches tall, Mr. Francis is of thin build and wears his full head of grey-blue hair pulled back. Ever since I can remember he has worn a smile that warms and brightens all. During our interview he was articulate, intelligent and possessed excellent recall. He kindly shared his experiences and memories as an early settler in Tucson, Arizona.

Thinking back to his childhood, Mr. Francis recalled, "[My father,] Israel Francis, was a farmer. [He farmed] cotton, corn, and grain, the usual farming." There were eight children in his family including himself, and they all helped out on the farm while his mother tended the house.

All the children attended Midway Elementary School in their hometown, San Antonio, Texas, but after seventh grade he ventured on alone to Douglass Junior High and High School. A love of knowledge and good marks inspired Mr. Francis to continue his education at Garden Luke College in San Antonio, Texas, majoring in liberal arts. A drought in his hometown and a nationwide depression prevented him from returning to college a second year. "I attended Garden Luke College for one session ... I was going to continue [my general studies], but the country was experiencing a depression and my family couldn't make any crops." At home he picked up odd jobs to help make ends meet. These included jobs such as chauffeuring, garage hand, and later, hotel baggage clerk.

The hotel owners happened to be settling a deal in Tucson, Arizona, with the Santa Rita Hotel and offered Mr. Francis a job. "I came out here to a job that was promised to me in 1937 working in the hotel for my boss lady which used to be in San Antonio. They came here and taken over the Santa Rita Hotel, her and her husband." He worked at the hotel for about three years as a bellhop and general service workman, rooming on the north side of town on Fourth and Main streets, near what is presently known as downtown.

It didn't take Mr. Francis long to obtain a more secure job and finally settle in Tucson. He left his job at the hotel for a position at Sundt Construction Company, where he remained for seven years. He then left the job at Sundt for one at O'Rielly Chevrolet, detailing new cars. "I stayed in that [car detailing], for a couple of months, then I took a job over in the parts department handling deliveries." With money he had saved from construction work, he purchased a house and ten acres of land in the "A" Mountain district located at the base of the mountain. "When I came here I rented a room for a couple of years, then I bought a house and lot [in 1940]. Four small rooms. [I] made an addition to them and made a house out of it. After living here maybe four years or more, I bought ten acres up on the hill [Mistletoe Circle] and I had it cut up into twenty-six lots and I sold them. I built four houses up there and sold them. Each one cost me at the time around $3100 to $3500."

He chose to make "the mountain," as commonly referred to by its residents, his home. "When I came here, out on the mountain maybe ten families were living out here, and we all became friends, good friends. There weren't any hard top streets out here; it was just dirt streets, so we bargained and asked the city for hard top and there wasn't any city water. But we had our own wells, and later, we did get city water. We came out here using bottled gas. We had tanks that would hold from fifty to sixty gallons of gas, but it was very expensive, unless you had the larger tanks. This neighborhood used to be just for colored, that was all that lived out here." And according to Mr. Francis it was understood by most during that time period, that mostly African Americans lived on "the mountain." When he came to the mountain there were ten colored families and all ten knew each other. They were all "friendly and peaceful" towards each other. At present, the neighborhood is integrated with many ethnic groups (Chinese, Mexican, Anglo, Chicano, etc.).

In general, times were good on the mountain, most people kept up their homes, worked, and raised families. Even though they lived in the arid desert, everyone managed to keep some type of animals. He stated, "Boy, I had about five hundred chickens out there in the back. I had a calf and hogs. We slaughtered them and made our sausage and bacon. The wolves used to come up out here and steal our chickens." Besides raising chickens and calves he also enjoyed working on cars. "Old Will Lewis, [a long-time friend], bought a car, a thirty-six Chevrolet which was about 1945. He and I fixed that car up right out in front, and he kept it for about two to three years. When he finally wore the tires out on it, we were so poor we couldn't put tires on the damn thing." He developed a keen interest in cars back home at the age of nineteen. When I was in Texas, I had a Model T Ford when I was about nineteen years old ... and I used to work on it all the time and from that, I just kept on."

Mr. Francis didn't have children, but he did adopt many of the neighborhood children whose parents trusted him to take them on weekend excursions. They especially loved to go for rides in his Model T Ford Express. "l used to take kids out to Old Tucson. Then we'd stop out there and look around, which it was free at the time to go in, but you had to pay for your rides ... maybe ten or twelve of them and boy they'd be hanging off of that Ford and that Ford would be moving." Mr. Francis and "his children" went many places, but mostly they enjoyed just riding. Every now and then, one of "his children" will drop in to trade memories and share their lives with him.

As far as interracial relations were concerned, Mr. Francis experienced Tucson to be about the same as his home town. "You'll find that everywhere you go [racial prejudice]. I made it [in Tucson], because I was used to racial incidents. It wasn't no good paying jobs for Black people at that time [during the civil rights era]. In fact, there weren't any for African American people." Compared to national activity he remembered very few protests and marches and took part in none personally. Mr. Francis is definitely a patriot, taking pride in his America, despite the racial hardships he's suffered.

The African American community in Tucson was small when he first came, but still they managed to organize social functions. He recalled one evening when he and a lady friend went downtown to a social. "Me and Ethel went downtown to a building where they had music and drinks, and we were just sitting down, when all of a sudden someone yelled out, 'He's got a gun!' There was a loud breaking noise and, boy, Ethel took out running across the street to the car, and when I got there she said, 'Hurry, hurry!' [laughs] I never could get her to go back, and I think they had gambling and things down below, but I never went back."

In conclusion, Mr. Francis emphasized his connection to the "A" Mountain community and the friendships he established that are strong even today. He was one of the first to move to the mountain at a time when there was no city water, paved streets, or gas. Mr. Francis is no less than a pioneer, having paved a road of opportunity for future African Americans. Our conversations were enlightening and through his shared experiences I learned that being African American in Tucson was not easy forty years ago, but still "there were many good, good times."

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