USF professor’s work has an impact abroad – the Oracle
When J. Michael Francis changed his major to History in his second year in college, more than 30 years later he would never have imagined that his work would be honored by the King of Spain, and he would enter the rank of Cross. officer of the Order of Isabella the Catholic – two levels below the king.
Francis, USF professor of Florida studies at the College of Arts and Sciences, received recognition from King Felipe VI of Spain on October 28 for his work in uncovering Spanish history in St. Augustine.
Mail had piled up in Francis’s office while he was working remotely, and he had not yet surrendered to pick it up due to COVID-19 precautions. When he did, he noticed a letter from the Consul General of the Spanish Consulate in Miami.
Upon opening the letter, Francis realized that the content was written in Spanish and included the words “By Royal Decree”. The letter announced that he was appointed to the rank of Officer of the Order of Isabella the Catholic in recognition of his work in the La Florida project.
“I was in disbelief, it was surreal,” Francis said. “You almost wonder, ‘Did this go to the wrong address? “”
But the letter was dated three months earlier, and Francis feared the lack of response might have been misinterpreted.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t even respond and he probably thinks that either I don’t want it or I don’t think it matters,” he said.
He traveled to Washington, DC to accept the award, accompanied by Rachel Sanderson, deputy director of the project, and Amy Anderson, a graduate of the USF’s Florida studies program.
The event took place in the official residence of the Ambassador of Spain. Guests in attendance included members of the Spanish Embassy and Chancellor of St. Peter Martin Tadlock.
During the award ceremony, the Spanish Ambassador gave a speech detailing Francis’ work with La Florida, and an Embassy staff member read the official Royal Decree in Spanish. Francis then received two medals, one for strictly black tie occasions and the other for more informal events.
Francis’ interest in Spanish history began when he traveled to Peru on a Rotary International rotating scholarship after graduating from high school. Francis said the experience of living with a Peruvian family for a year and learning about the country’s culture was what initially sparked his passion for Spanish culture.
“This is the moment that sparked interest in other cultures, other civilizations and especially places where worlds collide,” François said.
Inspired by his experiences and his newfound enthusiasm for world cultures, Francis majored in political science and Romance languages for his bachelor’s degree at the University of Alberta in 1986 in order to pursue a career in the Canadian foreign service.
However, his plans were cut short in his second year after meeting David Johnson, now professor emeritus at the University of Alberta, who taught for 50 years and majored in 19th-century Latin American history. Johnson fascinated Francis with his in-depth knowledge of Latin America, and Francis was inspired to enroll in one of Johnson’s courses.
Johnson, Francis remembers, was a professor who loved to push his students to succeed. His classes sparked something in Francis, who was fascinated and continued to enroll in every class Johnson taught.
Excelling in school also characterizes Francis who, according to Johnson, was the first to raise his hand and participate in the discussions.
“In class, her hand would often go up first,” Johnson said. “In seminars he was often the spark for discussions, yet never dominated a seminar. “
Dynamism, curiosity and intelligence are some of the qualities that made Francis successful, Johnson said, and allowed him to develop important projects.
“It completely changed every paradigm we had about the early days of Florida history,” Johnson said.
By the second semester of his junior year, Francis had changed his major to history and enrolled in the Honors History program. He continued to focus on Canadian history, always focused on foreign service, but Johnson encouraged him to focus more on Spanish history for his obvious enthusiasm for the subject.
The Spanish conquest is of common interest to historians, Johnson said. But François is intrigued by the events which follow the conquest and the development of the colonies.
Francis graduated from the University of Alberta with his Masters degree before going to Cambridge University for his doctorate. in History in 1997. He was subsequently hired by the University of North Florida, before moving to USF in 2012, where he held the Hough Family Chair of Florida Studies. This position, said Francis, was a major factor in moving to USF as it allowed him to fund his research.
The Hough family also initially funded the work that garnered recognition from the King of Spain, the La Florida Project. During his move to Saint-Pierre, François came into contact with the Sisters of Saint-Joseph of Saint-Augustin, which include a motherhouse managing parish archives containing severely damaged diocesan registers dating from 1594.
“One of [The Hough Family’s] The real interests from the start were finding ways to present Florida history to an audience, ”Francis said. “[The Hough Family] said, “We would like the research to be done, but we want you to find ways to get this information out to the public.” And I took this mission very seriously.
To preserve the contents of the archives and make the documents more accessible, Francis, alongside two graduate students, began digitizing the archives in 2016. The team quickly received comments that many could not read the documents, and Francis continued the project by translating documents from 16th century Spanish to modern Spanish and English.
In 2015, François was commissioned to write a book on the history of Saint Augustine for his 450th commemoration. Francisco Guitard, a Spaniard who worked in the city’s tourism, was intrigued by Francis’s work, and the two agreed to meet.
François introduced Guitard to his work with the parish archives, which, at the time, were organized on Excel spreadsheets. Guitard offered to help move the content to a more user-friendly platform and the La Florida project was born.
Later that year, Sanderson recommended that the team apply for a grant from the National Archives. In November 2019, they were offered the grant of $ 250,000.
The terms of the grant specified the project, for which Francis and his team are to transcribe, translate and display 8,258 pages of church records, to be completed by February 1.
“If we could come back at that point and you ask me, ‘Are you sure you can complete this? “I would say pretty confident, but deep down I would be lying to you,” Francis said.
Due to COVID-19, the team had time to work on the home project. The team completed the final translations on November 1.
The successful completion of the project on time is essential to build Francis’ and USF’s reputation around research, and could encourage private donors and future grant offers.
As the official deadline approaches, Francis plans to launch an advertising campaign for the project by traveling to the Tampa Bay area and hopefully Washington, DC, Spain and some African countries. The group also prepared short TV films that could be shown by PBS or similar companies, telling the contents of the archives.
With Project La Florida, Francis said viewers will have access to information about the cultures and events that shape St. Augustine. The project, he said, could change the public’s perception of Florida history.
“You think of a mixed community of all these different ethnicities as something more contemporary and on a small scale,” Francis said. “It has existed in Saint-Augustin since time [it] was founded – it is not a function of modern migration.
The support of his family, Johnson and members of the La Florida team was crucial in Francis’ journey to bring the project to fruition and he received it while he received his recognition.
“I had a strange feeling to receive the medallion and to see the Ambassador say all of these incredibly kind words,” Francis said. “I just felt overwhelmed with emotion [and] gratitude for being able to meet these amazing people along the way.