In Memoriam: Colandus “Kelly” Francis
April 1st, 2022
By Adam Gordon, Executive Director, Fair Share Housing Center
I’m very sad to share that FSHC’s Board Chair, Colandus “Kelly” Francis, passed away last Saturday.
Kelly was a civil rights giant who in so many ways was at the leading edge for decades of struggles for racial justice in Camden and throughout New Jersey. In addition to being a longtime member, and chair since 2015, of FSHC’s Board, he was a longtime member of the NJ NAACP’s Executive Committee, former President of the Camden County NAACP, and on the boards of the Work Environment Council and Parkside Business & Community in Partnership, among many other roles.
As he often reminded us, he came from the generation that defined civil rights in America and in New Jersey. Born just a few years after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose former home in Camden he spent much of his final years trying to save, his family was part of the Great Migration from the South; he was born in North Carolina and spent much of his childhood in North Carolina and Virginia before his family moved to Camden in 1949 and he was graduated from his beloved Camden High School, the “Castle on the Hill,” just blocks from where he lived much of his adult life in Parkside. He lived through Jim Crow in the South and the deep racial segregation of the north. Yet he also remembered Camden before the white flight of residents and jobs, and spoke constantly of the vibrancy of the city in the 1940s and 1950s.
Kelly was rooted in history, and constantly educating younger generations, myself very much included, about what to learn from both the Civil Rights Movement and the years of retrenchment and struggle thereafter. A lot of that knowledge is what people today call intersectionality – about the connections between different struggles and different roles – especially for Kelly about the intersection between people’s roles in their communities and at work. He was a pioneering labor leader in the postal workers union at a time when there were few Black union leaders and saw that fight for dignity in the workplace as deeply connected to the fight for racial justice. In tense moments – like the time when residents of Cherry Hill formed a physical barrier between us and other advocates and the members of Planning Board on a proposal to build affordable housing on Cherry Hill’s east side – Kelly never flinched. He had seen it all before and knew we had to keep going.
While Kelly was focused on learning from history, he was also very much ahead of his time. Long before most community leaders were talking about environmental justice, he fought formative battles over pollution and toxic exposure in neighborhoods of color. He pushed FSHC to challenge how Low Income Housing Tax Credits, a massive federal housing program started in the Reagan Administration that very few people were paying much attention to, were pushing housing into many of the locations that had the most environmental justice concerns in Camden, which became one of the most important areas of work FSHC has ever pursued and transformed how the state allocated billions of dollars in federal funds.
Kelly also cared deeply about the City of Camden – more deeply than I’ve ever seen anyone care about their community. He always had a stack of newspaper clippings about issues he was investigating, including in the fine print public notice sections. He was also a tireless presence in Camden City Council meetings, holding city officials accountable for the impacts of their decisions, and numerous times taking city officials to court on a pro se and winning despite not having formal legal training. Nobody knew Camden like Kelly did, from his times walking the streets delivering mail to his neighborhood-by-neighborhood organizing and activism.
The last time I saw Kelly in person was on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day this year when I met him at the development in Cherry Hill mentioned above, which he fought for over 25 years to get built. It’s now there and named for him and fellow former board chair Ron Evans. Kelly’s passing comes as 54 families are finally moving into these long-sought homes on Cherry Hill’s east side. They are just a few of the many families whose lives would be totally different if it was not for how Kelly lived his life. In my faith tradition people upon death say “may his memory be for a blessing.” I have no doubt that Kelly’s memory, for many people he knew and many he did not, will be.