Jam-packed into a full cafeteria, the nearly 300 students screamed and hollered, “Yes!” Their responses were loud, thunderous, and filled with anticipation and excitement.
What those students were ready for was a birthday party. Not one of their own, though, but rather a schoolwide celebration to honor and remember the life and accomplishments of Virgin Islander Rothschild Francis, one day before what would have been the civil rights leader’s 121st birthday.
Performing musical selections and raps and reading poetry and essays, students young and old came together to learn about one of the territory’s most storied heroes.
“While they’ve been practicing, they’ve been learning about Rothchild Francis,” interventionist Jeselle Cruse-Peter said. “They can actually tell you facts about him and what they know about him by what they’ve learned through song, chants and some readings.”
Cruse-Peter said conveying to students what an important leader Francis was is why the school annually holds the celebration.
“We want to see the students emulate him and see themselves in him,” she said. “We want our students to know that, yes, Virgin Islanders succeed and, yes, they do make a difference. We want them to know that, yes, they too can make a difference.”
For sixth-graders in Mrs. Vitalis’ and Mr. Neives’ classes, they enjoyed performing because it enabled them to showcase their talents in front of the entire student body while conveying things they learned about Francis.
“If he was still alive he’d still work for us,” student Angela Vanterpool said.
“I learned he made a newspaper called The Emancipator and he fought for the people to vote and he fought for better wages and conditions for the people,” student Indika Petersen said.
Shalon Fahiu, Rahjah Guillaume, Terique Riviere and Joshua Ferdinand had a rap and break-dance about Francis to close out the ceremony. Each took a verse.
“Rothchild Francis was born on St. Thomas, October 5, 1891, to Matilda and Albert Francis who trained their child to love.”
“He was a civil rights leader who worked for the rights of the people.”
“He fought against social injustice. He introduced a bill that formed the first civil government.”
“He fought for the poor to vote. He started the labor union and was favored by the masses who saw hope.”
Besides all those things, according to a 1992 UVI profile, Francis was also a champion of the poor by fighting taxes.
“He strengthened his stance further by emphasizing that when signs of poverty are so evident, it is unfair to tax a hungry and destitute people,” the UVI profile said. “He vowed to vehemently oppose any motion for imposing taxes on the people which would eventually affect the have-nots.”
Francis was also one of the first St. Thomians to act as a delegate to the United States Congress and, by 1919, had already completed four trips to Washington, D.C., to act on behalf of the people of the U.S. Virgin Islands. He is also sometimes referred to as “The Father of the 1936 Organic Act,” which set in motion for the territory the first formation of a plan of government.
In 1946 the Fifth Municipal Council of St. Thomas and St. John passed a resolution honoring Francis for his public service and for championing the civil rights and liberties of the people. The resolution also renamed the public square in Charlotte Amalie from the Market Square to The Rothchild Francis Square. Francis died in 1963 in New York City.