“I know that my speeches create a fire in the minds of people so as to change the conditions which now exist…” Elma Francois
When one Googles “prominent Socialists and Marxists from the Caribbean,” multiple sources point to Fidel Castro and Uriah Butler. However, before Fidel and his case against the economic and social misery of Cuba, behind Butler and his communist influence, there was Elma Francois. Elma Francois was a powerful grassroots labor organizer and domestic worker who led multiple strikes and labor movements that challenged British colonial policies in Trinidad and Tobago.
Born in 1897, Francois’ early years were molded by loss, oppression and struggle in St. Vincent. After the death of her father, she found employment at a sugar factory where she promptly got herself fired. Francois had a socially active mind from a young age and tried to organize the workers in the sugar factory against their employers. In 1919, she moved to Trinidad in search of better job opportunities leaving her 2 year old son with her mother. Her son later joined her when he turned 16.
In Trinidad, she found a job as a domestic worker at the Stollmeyer Castle before joining the Trinidad Workingmen’s Association (TWA). This was a short-lived collaboration as she disagreed with the social exclusivity of Cipriani which clashed with her Garveyite militancy and consciousness. Challenging the expected behavior of Black women in Trinidad, Francois proceeded to educate herself and “preach” labor and political matters to people on the street corners.
Ever conscious of her African heritage , she formed the National Unemployed Movement(NUM) later known as the Negro Welfare Cultural and Social Association (NWSA). NWSA sought to empower Black people, particularly Black women, socially, politically and economically. Elma became “Comrade Francois” and the chief ideologue of the organization. At NWSA, both women and men were treated fairly and unlike other movements of the time, NWSA did not form a separate women’s wing. It is credited as being the first gender-neutral organization of its time. It was also the first and only organization in the Caribbean that registered the unemployed.
Enlarging upon the issue of unemployment, NWSA took on imperialism and colonialism as well. When Italy invaded Ethiopia (present day Eritrea) in 1935, the NWSA organized its followers who protested by refusing to load Italian ships on the docks. On June 19 1937, the Butler Riots took place spurring awareness of workers’ rights across the Caribbean in Jamaica, Barbados, Grenada and British Guyana. Under Uriah Butler Fyzabad’s leadership, oil workers at Forest Reserve began riots leading to the death of police officer Charlie King who was burned alive by mobstars. Francois immediately went to Fyazabad, informed herself to Butler and through the NWSCA, she instigated the first strike in Port-of-Spain. This “fever” spread throughout the whole country leading Francois to be charged with sedition. She was the first person in Trinidad to bear such a charge.
Applying her intelligence and eloquence, Francois successfully defended herself before an all male jury and beat the charge. In the following years, the NWSCA worked towards the formation of trade unions in northern Trinidad. Elma developed goitre in her 40s before passing away in 1944. She died shortly after bidding her enlisted son goodbye. People speculate that her death was due to the betrayal and sadness she felt because of her son’s decision to fight for the British in WWII. She blamed her absence from his life as the sole reason for his betrayal. Her death was a great loss to NWSCA whose activities slowed down.
Elma Francois social conscience was as well developed as that of Uriah Butler but she fought for social justice in a different way. She was a radical communist whose visions did not include the mercantile and industrial middle class.