Elma Francois has been immortalised in the character of ‘Cassie’ in Ralph de Boissière’s book ‘Crown Jewel’. She has been declared ‘National Heroine’ of our country in 1987. The first female labour leader in Trinidad and Tobago still has some truths to teach to women nowadays.
Elma was born in St. Vincent in 1897. Life was gloomy: her father, a labourer, died when she was still little, the family lost all their belongings in the volcanic eruption that devastated the island in 1902, and there weren’t any prospects for young women other than working as a domestic servant, picking cotton or finding some sort of employment in the sugar factory at Mount Bentick.
Elma did the latter, and promptly got herself fired. Already socially minded as a young teenager, she tried to organise the workers in the sugar factory, which was not met with understanding by the owners of Mount Bentick. Elma moved to Kingstown, where she had a liaison with Albert James. This produced a son. James went off to fight in World War I, and after the war settled in Trinidad. In 1919, Elma Francois migrated to Trinidad, leaving her two-year old boy behind in St. Vincent.
A typical ‘small islander’ story? Just wait and see.
First, she had to find an income. The Stollmeyers employed her as a servant in their ‘castle’ on the Savannah. Little did they know that they were housing a future labour leader! Not before long, Francois joined the Trinidad Workingmen’s Association (TWA), of which Captain A. A. Cipriani was an ardent promoter.
Reading books late into the night, Elma educated herself and proceeded to ‘preach’ labour and political matters to the people. At ‘La Cou Harpe’ in Observatory Street, on streetcorners in east Port-of-Spain, anywhere where she could reach the poor working class, Elma raised her voice and tried (doubtlessly with a heavy ‘Vincie’ accent) to talk the people out of their lethargy.
She fell in love with Jim Barrette, who became her companion for the rest of her life. Elma and Jim were two of the founding members of the National Unemployed Movement (NUM), which was formed in 1934. In those years, the world was in the grips of the Great Depression, which manifested itself in Trinidad with increasing unemployment and destitution especially among the rural Indian population and female workers.
The NUM started to register unemployed people, a thing that never had been done before, and organised regular ‘Hunger Marches’, demonstrations of the unemployed. At one time in July 1934, police stopped in Laventille a hunger march of Indian sugar workers from Caroni, preventing the demonstrators to join the black NUM-protesters in Port-of-Spain. Interestingly, inspite being so open to the cause of women workers, Elma Francois’ organisation never integrated the Indians fully. From being ‘national’ the NUM went to being ‘negro’, and one year later, in 1935, the NUM was renamed and restructured into the Negro Welfare Cultural and Social Association (NWCSA).
The NWCSA was highly influenced by Rupert Gittens, a ‘Belmont boy’ who had been deported from Marseilles back to Trinidad due to his involvement with the French communist party. Gittens put some socialist backbone into the NWCSA, and the eloquent Elma became ‘Comrade Francois’ and chief ideologue of the organisation.
Enlarging upon the issue of unemployment, the NWSCA went on the attack and took on imperialism and colonialism at large. In sympathising with the Ethiopians during Mussolini’s invasion of that country in 1935, they held a mass meeting in October of that year. This rally won the communist group support from other levels in the society, e.g. from Roman Catholics and many middle-class Afro-Trinidadians.
The NWSCA also started to attack Captain Arthur Cipriani, who in their view was not radical enough as a labour leader. Cipriani, who had meanwhile become Mayor of Port-of-Spain, had always had his own ideas concerning the manner in which the authorities could work towards the improvement of the situation of workers. He eyed the communist NWSCA suspiciously and banned them from assembling in Woodford Square.
While the organisation worked closely together with Uriah ‘Buzz’ Butler, Elma Francois was always in an ideological tug-o-war with him. In contrast to Butler, Francois denounced the British colonists, and as a communist she also denounced religion as a political means. Trinidadians being the spiritual people that they are, the latter didn’t always work in her fervour, and the NWSCA was never to exude the mass appeal that Butler possessed.
On June 19th, 1937, riots took place in Fyzabad and police officer Charlie King had been burned alive by the mob. Francois immediately went to Fyzabad and informed herself. Only three days later, the NWSCA had instigated the first strike in Port-of-Spain. Demonstrations and ‘strike fever’ spread throughout the whole country, to San Fernando and Arima. Out of that, the inevitable charges of unlawful assembly (of which Elma were eventually acquitted) and more importantly seditition resulted.
The sedition trials between October 1937 and February 1938 were a very trying time for Elma Francois, who undertook to defend herself and not leave it up to a lawyer. Fortunately for her, she was able to convince the all-male jury and the judge with her intelligence and eloquence, and she was finally acquitted. Her speech was well-prepared and clear, and in the cross-examination she kept a straight face. Rhoda Reddock, in her book about Elma Francois, reports her as answering to the prosecutor C.T.W.E. Worrell, who asked her why she persisted in making speeches which were ‘causing disaffection among his Majesty’s subjects’:
“I don’t know that my speeches create disaffection, I know that my speeches create a fire in the minds of the people so as to change the conditions which now exist, and it isn’t for me here to tell you what is existing because I believe that you are a son of some working-class family despite your lofty position as you stand before me as a prosecutor.”
Good for you, Elma! Her companion Jim Barrette, however, was put in jail for nine months for sedition, and Elma, who started to work hard to appeal the sentence, grew thin and gaunt in the struggle to free Jim.
In the following years, the NWSCA worked towards the formation of trade unions in northern Trinidad. The group started to publish a newsletter called ‘The New Emancipator’, reflecting the new and dynamic feeling of being emancipated now experienced by the black working class, just a century after the emancipation from slavery had taken place. Butler, who was detained in prison for the duration of the Second World War, was nevertheless present in spirit in the early meetings, in which Comrade Francois, inspite of her personal differences with ‘Buzz’, spoke of the close contact her organisation had with him.
Elma Francois developed a goitre in her forties, a growth which she left untreated. Her son, who had joined her in Trinidad at the age of 16, enlisted to fight in Europe. This made her worried and very unhappy. She died shortly after the farewell dance given for the Trinidadian contingent which left for the front in 1944.
Elma Francois’ death was a great loss to the NWSCA, and without her as their ‘heartbeat’, the organisation never became as active again as it once was.
To this day, she is truly a heroine, not because she was a ‘commie’ in times when communism had not been tested as yet, or because she was one of maybe two or three women who dared to stand up in a male world. These were only the realities of the times before the Second World War.
Outside of these realities, Elma Francois is a heroine because she personiefied timeless truths that many women nowadays should practice: political will, temerity to speak up in public, tenacity in educating herself and in using that education for a cause.
In the 1930s, the world was deep in the claws of the Great Depression, resulting in inflation, mass unemployment, hunger, shattered dreams, energy that evaporated, creativity that had no goal, hopelessness.
Elma Francois’ social conscience was as well developed as that of Uriah ‘Buzz’ Butler and Captain A. A. Cipriani, but she struggled for social justice in a different way. Butler and Cipriani strove for the improvement of the lives of workers by strengthening also those who could employ them. Elma Francois, however, was strongly influenced by radical communists, and her visions did not include the mercantile and industrial middle class in the process of reforming the society.