Sydna Edmonia Robella Francis

Suffragist, abolitionist, devoted daughter and wife, mother.
This is her story: dedicating her life to uplifting the less fortunate, an advocate for women’s rights and education, overcoming life’s obstacles and tragedies.

Virginia – New York – Oregon (1815-1860)
Sydna was born circa 1815 in Virginia. Her parents are John and Charlotte Dandridge. Her fist move was from Virginia to New York with her parents. She married Abner Hunt Francis in 1840; their daughter Theodosia Gertrude was born in 1843.

Sydna was secretary of the Dorcas Society, a local group of people supported by a church, with a mission of providing clothing to the poor. She was also President of the Ladies’ Literary and Progressive Improvement Society of Buffalo. According to Sydna in a letter addressed to Frederick Douglass, the Ladies’ Literary and Progressive Improvement Society of Buffalo was the only female group formed to improve the moral intellectual, political, and social advancement of its members (African American women) by promoting literature, art and sciences that encourage political reform (including the rights for women to vote). (1) At the same time, her husband Abner was a member of the Buffalo City Anti-Slavery Society, and was one of its leaders opposing segregation in schools.

In August of 1843, Sydna and Abner attended the National Colored Convention in Buffalo, New York, PROSPERITY AND POLITICS: TAKING STOCK OF BLACK WEALTH”. “Fifty-eight delegates attended and an enthusiastic audience” reports The National Colored Convention website. (2)

The Colored Conventions
“Over the course of seven decades tens of thousands of Black men and women from different walks of life traveled to attend meetings publicly advertised as “Colored Conventions.” Held throughout the antebellum period and continuing for 30 years beyond the American Civil War, to organize for social, political, educational, and labor rights.

Sketch of National Convention delegates
Sketched by Theo. R Davis, February 6, 1869 pg. 69 Illustration from Harper’s Weekly of the Colored National Labor Union Convention in Washington, DC

Sometime in 1850 the Francis family moved to Portland Oregon, but this move initially proved to be a precarious one; they became victims of state exclusion laws. While there were anti-slavery laws in Oregon, there were also Black Exclusion Laws to prevent Black people from settling in the State. In September 1851, Judge O.C. Pratt ordered the Francis family to leave the state within four months. 211 Portland residents signed a petition and convinced the Portland Legislature to allow an exemption for the family. The legislature tabled the request and never revisited the issue. (3) Despite the exclusion laws, Abner owned and operated what has been described as a successful mercantile business and they also owned a boarding house at the corner of Front and Stark streets in Portland. Although the family were well-regarded, in 1860 the family made another move, their last one, to the Colony of Vancouver Island. Sydna’s parents, John and Charlotte Dandridge had arrived 2 years earlier.

Early days on Vancouver Island (1860-1865)

Residence of Sydna Francis 1872

Life in Victoria started well enough for the Francis family. On October 24, 1860 their daughter, Theodosia was baptized at Christ Church Cathedral. Abner joined the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps, a group of 40 to 50 Black men who offered their services as a volunteer militia unit. The Corps built a drill house which became a valued family and community gathering place. In 1862 they built a home with Sydna’s parents that we now know as “Dandridge House”. The Francis family became prominent members, socially and politically, in Victoria’s Black community.

Image taken circa 1872. This house was built by Abner and Sydna Francis with Sydna’s parents, John and Charlotte Dandridge in 1862. It was situated at the northwest corner of Johnson Street, facing Vancouver Street.


Sadly, within a year of the home being built, in March 1863, Sydna’s mother, Charlotte, dies. There is a brief notice in the colonist on March 9, 1863 “DIED. In this city, on March 7th at her residence, corner of Johnson and Vancouver streets, Charlotte, wife of Mr. John Dandridge, mother of Mrs. A.H. Francis, in the 70th year of her age. Friends and acquaintances are respectfully invited to attend the funeral from her late residence, corner of Johnson and Vancouver streets at 11 a.m. today.” Sydna had a grand obelisk installed at Pioneer Square cemetery on Quadra Street to mark her mother’s grave site.

Venture into Victoria politics
In November 1865, nominations for Mayor of Victoria and 6 councillors were called for. Abner Francis is nominated by Willis Bond. (Colonist, November 9, 1865). The election took place on November 13th, Mayor-elect Lumley Franklin and Councillors Charles Gowan, Richard Lewis, Joseph Jeffrey, Abner Hunt Francis, and Robert Layzell were sworn in and took the Oath of Allegiance.

Surprisingly, the next day Francis resigned, and posted a notice in the Colonist.
YATES SREET WARD. To Lumley Franklin, Esq, Mayor-elect Sir, – Doubt having been cast upon the validity of my election as a City Councillor, and not being desirous to combat with such, I beg to resign into your hands all right or claim to a seat at the Board of the City Council of Victoria. Dated this 15th day of November, 1865 A.D. ABNER HUNT FRANCIS. Witness John Copeland, Solicitor, Supreme Court.

A formal petition was heard by the Supreme Court on November 16th to declare Francis’s election null and void. The following appeared in the newspaper the next day. “Mr William Leigh, (Colonial Treasurer), was placed in the witness-box and produced the roll of 1863, on which Mr. Francis name did not appear.
A condition of running for office is that candidates had to be property owners. Though not listed on the 1863 Roll, Abner Hunt Francis is on the “Real Estate Assessment Roll July 1, 1864 to June 30, 1865” with 2 properties; 1 on Quadra St. and 1 noted as Quadra/Fisgard (City of Victoria archives).
The next day on November 17th, an editorial in the Colonist questioned the use of the Assessment Roll in determining candidacy for elections, and specifically why was the most recent (1865) assessment roll not used. “The assessment of 1862-3 is no more than a piece of waste paper …. The whole affair from beginning to end is a ‘mass’ of the most outrageous absurdity… ”
As for their home on Johnson Street, Sydna is listed as paying the taxes along with Peter Lester from 1864 until 1871. (4) It is thought that Lester is helping a long-time friend. The Francis and Lester families had been active in the abolitionist movements in the United States and both families knew and worked with Frederick Douglass.

Even though he could not serve the term as Councillor, Abner Hunt Francis is recognized as the first Black person in B.C. elected as a City Councillor. The following year Mifflin Gibbs is elected to Victoria City Council representing the James Bay Ward and served from 1866 to 1869.

Financial Misfortunes (1861-1870)
Before arriving in Victoria, the Francis family had amassed in real estate and personal property an estimated $36,000 (approximately $800,000.00 2021CDN$). (5). Abner Hunt Francis was considered a successful entrepreneur. His business ventures include newspaper agent and owner-operator of a successful clothing store. Yet, in February 1861 a notice was posted in the Colonist “Failure at Portland. We learn from the Portland Advertiser that A.H. Francis, a colored man, who has been doing business in that city (Portland) for several years, on the 11th instant made an assignment in favor of his creditors.”
2 years later, in February 1863 the Colonist posts a bankruptcy notice. “In the Supreme Court of Civil Justice, Bankruptcy. In the matter of Abner Hunt Francis”.

Another 2 years (1865), despite the election debacle, circumstances improve for the Francis family. In 1868 in the First Victoria Directory, 2nd issue Abner is listed as a retail grocer and provisioner on Fort Street and in October 1869 he posts a notice in the local newspaper that he is re-locating his business “three doors above his old stand on Fort Street, two doors from Douglas Street.” But this recovery is again derailed.

On May 19, 1870 Colonist, pg. 3 “Robbery on Fort Street” Sometime during Tuesday night the store of A.H. Francis, on Fort Street, near Douglas was entered by burglars and about $80 worth of groceries and fruit abstracted. … This makes the third Fort street store that has been robbed within six weeks”.
Five months later, October 12, Colonist, pg. 3 “Fire on Fort Street” At 20 minutes past ten last night, two gentlemen passing the store of A.H. Francis on Fort street near Douglas discovered a fire burning inside … so rapid was the spread of fire the building was soon wrapped in flames and wholly destroyed…. The loss falls heavily on Mr. Francis who was uninsured and cannot account for the origin of the fire.” The next day 1870-10-13 pg. 3 “The Fire – Mr. Francis’s loss is at least $1200 by the fire”. An inquest is held. John. S. Deas had been called, the evening of the fire, after it was extinguished to examine the stove. He said there was no fire in the stove but it was a bit warm. The inquest found no fault for Francis.

Life takes its toll (1871-1872)
In 1871 the Victoria Census indicates only Sydna and Abner are at the Johnson Street residence. There is no mention of their daughter or Sydna’s father. It is thought that John Dandridge returned to the U.S. after Charlotte’s death in 1863 and that Theodosia returned to the U.S. with her grandfather. In 1863 Theodosia would have been about 19.

On March 27, 1872 Abner Hunt Francis dies. There is a notice in the Colonist on pg. 3 the next day. “Death of Mr. A.H. Francis. Mr. Abner Hunt Francis, a leading and influential colored resident, died quite suddenly yesterday …. His father was a revolutionary soldier and fought under General Washington in the War of Independence …”. Abner is buried at Pioneer Square – an inscription on the opposite side of the obelisk for Sydna’s mother.

Sydna Perseveres (1872-1889)
In 1872 Sydna is 57 years old. She owns the home on Johnson Street and a property on Broad Street. Three months after Abner’s death Sydna decides to sell both properties. She purchases a home of her own and continues to live within the Black community and take strength from her connections in the church.

We know that for some of these Black women their thoughtfulness and kindness went beyond the Black community, supporting and contributing to organizations such as The British Columbia Protestant Orphan’s Home. In 1881 Sydna is listed in the census, age 59?, widowed and living in the Johnson Street Ward. Listed at the same residence is Rachael Hounslow, age 43 and Rachael’s son Herbert, age 14.

On May 11, 1889 Sydna Francis passes away. Colonist 1889-05-14 pg. 4. “The funeral of the late Mrs. Sydna E.R. Francis took place yesterday afternoon from her late residence, corner of Fisgard and Quadra Street, many friends of the deceased being in attendance. The pall-bearers were: Messrs. Peter Lester, M.F. Bailey, T.W. Pierre, T.J. Partridge, Herbert Hounslow and S. Whitley. The deceased leaves her property to the Presbyterian Church, with Rev. P. MacLeod as executor. A sum of $100 is bequeathed to Mrs. Hounslow. There is a mortgage of $800 on the property. Sydna is buried at Ross Bay Cemetery in plot H-80-E-19.

Gravesite for Sydna Francis at Ross Bay Cemetery
Gravesite for Sydna Edmonia Robella (nee Dandridge) Francis (1815 – May 11, 1889).
Ross Bay Cemetery Plot H-80-E-19

Our Society does undertake projects to provide grave markers for Black pioneers. You can donate to this worthy cause here.

Dandridge House receives Victoria Municipal Heritage Designation (2005)
The house on Johnson Street, sold by Sydna in 1872 was moved a few streets away to Rudlin Street in 1897-98. The current owners purchased the home in 2002 and undertook a significant restoration project. The home was designated a Heritage property in 2005.

In this short video the current owners tell us about the construction of the original house, including gas lighting!; and the restoration project.


Images
– Minutes of the National Convention of Colored Citizens; Held at Buffalo; on the 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th, and 19th of August, 1843; for the purpose of considering their moral and political condition as American citizens.
– Newspaper Article for PROSPERITY AND POLITICS: TAKING STOCK OF BLACK WEALTH AND THE 1843 CONVENTION Credit: Emancipator and Free American, 31 August 1843. From Gale. 19th Century U.S. Newspapers. ©2008 Gale, a part of Cengage Learning, Inc.
– Colored National Labor Union Convention in Washington, DC. February 1869. Sketch by Theodore Russel Davis (1840–1894) a 19th-century American artist, who made numerous eye-witness drawings of significant military and political events during the American Civil War and its aftermath. Public Domain.
– Home at Johnson and Vancouver street circa 1872; built by Sydna and Abner Francis circa 1862: Courtesy of Davyd McMinn and Linda Carlson, current owners.
– Charlotte Dandridge grave marker at Pioneer Square, BC Black History Awareness Society Collection, Photographer: Tracy Guinchard
– Abner Hunt Francis grave marker at Pioneer Square, BC Black History Awareness Society Collection, Photographer: Tracy Guinchard
– Dandridge House (2021), BC Black History Awareness Society Collection, Photographer: Tracy Guinchard
-Dandridge House Plaque, BC Black History Awareness Society Collection, Photographer: Tracy Guinchard
References
1. Sydna Francis: Colored Conventions biography
2. National Colored Conventions website
3. Abner Hunt Francis BlackPast.org Biography
4. Dandridge House History: Victoria Heritage Foundation
5. Abner Hunt Francis: Colored Conventions Biography
Other Sources
– Canadian Convention of the Colored Population (1847 : Drummondville, QC), “Report of the Convention of the Colored Population, Held at Drummondville, Aug, 1847.,” Colored Conventions Project Digital Records.
– City of Victoria Archives
– Colonist Online Edition: various issues, articles and advertisements 1858-1889.
– Old Cemeteries Society
– Royal BC Museum and Archives