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Who is Great Aunt Francis?

My Great Aunt Francis Lewellen Langford Owens was born March 24th, 1903 in Marianna, Arkansas. A small, mostly agricultural town nestled between larger metropolitan cities like Jonesboro and Forest City to the Northeast, and Arkansas' capital, Little Rock, further down-state. Her parents, Joanna (Newsome) and Louis Lewellen, welcomed their new daughter into a warm large family, with Francis having eight brothers and three sisters. In 1915, tragedy struck, leaving Francis orphaned at the age of twelve. Her parents' death moved her north to Detroit, Michigan to the home of her brother Joe Baugh. Detroit, expanding with the growing auto industry, presented Francis with a wealth of new opportunities and she made the most of them personally, professionally and socially.

Picture of Great Aunt Francis - Francis L. Owens.
Francis L. Owens
Like many young women in her day, Francis realized that a good education was the key to financial success. For Francis, this meant a Bachelor of Science degree from Michigan State University. Her investment paid off handsomely even during the Depression years, with Francis working as lunch manager at Garfield Junior High School. Her talents and sophistication led her higher in her profession with her next job being that of Food Service Director for the famous Gotham Hotel, known internationally for the finest in five star service.

In 1942, my Great Aunt had the chance to combine her culinary skill with her commitment to community service by becoming the Food Service Director at the Lucy Thurman Branch of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA). Named for pioneering women's temperance leader Lucy Thurman, this Branch of the YWCA was opened in the late 1920's to serve the black community. Contrary to the desires of the YWCA, their facilities had to be segregated due to local ordinances. Still separate did not mean across town, instead the branches were adjacent to each other with the caucasian branch around the corner. The Lucy Thurman branch played an integral role in the black community and Francis with her reputation for quality cuisine, was the talk of elite Detroit society. Along with everyday events at the YWCA, famous entertainers and the community's social elite had special events and socialized at the Lucy Thurman branch.

Francis managed all aspects of the Lucy Thurman's dining experience from the ground up, ordering supplies, hiring and firing personnel and most important of all, planning menus for lunch and dinner. She insured that the meals, whether served in the cafeteria or the elegant "Blue Room", were prepared to the utmost perfection. The famous crabmeat salad, rolls and sweet potato pies that delighted the taste-buds of YWCA residents and guests alike, were created under Francis' capable hand for more than a decade.

After so much success, Francis still wanted to do more. She decided that perhaps the best way to do this was by sharing her wisdom and acquired expertise with the young. She returned to school herself, getting her Master of Science degree from Wayne State University in home economics and entered the classrooms of the Detroit Public School system as a teacher shortly thereafter. Francis would enlighten and inspire students in home economics until she retired from the DPS in 1972.

Even with her many professional and social successes, the ghost of personal tragedy still haunted Francis. She would marry and be widowed twice with her first husband, Wade Langford, dying in 1927 and her second husband, Theodore Owens, in the late 1950's. Yet these dark experiences did not prevent Francis from continuing to give of herself. As one of the original Willing Workers, co-founder of the Silhouettes and as an active member of Delta Sigma Theta Public Service Sorority - an organization I too joined while in college - I was influenced greatly by her example of service.

When my Great Aunt Francis celebrated her 100th birthday this past March 24th, 2003, many former students, community partners and loving family members came together for a special centennial jubilee. Drawing from frequent articles in the Michigan Chronicle Newspaper and honors given both by the Lucy Thurman YWCA and her sorrors, those present paid tribute to her life legacy and celebrated beauty of person and spirit. Even at one hundred, Great Aunt Francis still has a passion for life and that unfailing Lewellen sense of humor. I hope that the success of my company G.A.F. Entertainment will someday be a fitting tribute to the Lewellen matriarch, who for me still personifies the essence of moxie, grace, wisdom and dignity.

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