Gator attorney Greg Francis talks about winning the largest U.S. civil rights case ever, lessons he learned from farmers and why he values uphill climbs.
As an 11-year-old boy, Gregorio “Greg” Francis recalled lying in bed at night struggling to fall asleep while an incessant and irritating click, click, click, click, click came from his family’s kitchen. His youngest sister rarely noticed, falling asleep easily. But those clicks became etched in Francis’ memories as they continued night after night.
Almost 40 years later, Francis (BA ’91, JD ’94) waxes nostalgic about those clicks, as if they are part of the forces that drove him to succeed. He would go on to become a renowned attorney, winning the largest civil rights case in U.S. history. The landmark Black Farmers II case is now the subject of his recently-published book, “Just Harvest” (2021, Simon & Schuster), which has generated talks of a major motion picture.
But back then, growing up in Orlando’s Richmond Estates neighborhood, where Francis says young boys “didn’t always go down the right path,” those sounds annoyed him and even drove him to loathe the criminal justice system that employed his stepfather, John Thompson. You see, in order to qualify for a promotion and a raise, Thompson, a corrections officer, needed a college degree. But how could he earn one when he struggled to write?
Undeterred, Thompson tape-recorded his lectures from evening classes at Valencia Community College. After he returned home and helped put their kids to bed, he and Francis’s mother, Annette Thompson, would sit at their kitchen table where Annette would transcribe the lessons as he clicked the buttons on the recorder: play, stop, rewind, play, stop, rewind, again and again to what seemed to young Greg Francis an infinity of clicks.
Thompson, a 30-year Navy veteran, pressed on, as did his wife, who ran a daycare center in their home to bring in a few extra dollars. After all, there were mouths to feed and futures to plan.
“They both earned that degree,” Greg Francis says today. “Speaks volumes about my mother’s devotion.”
For young Greg Francis, the weight of that memory and its lesson wouldn’t hit home until seven years later when he encountered his own struggles as a freshman at UF.
Tiny Fish, Big Pond
A self-described naïve high school football and track athlete who knew so little about college he applied to only one university, Francis struggled on every front when he became part of UF’s 40,000-member student body. He quickly discovered he was a better student than athlete, but not by much. He longed to be an engineer, yet calculus and chemistry that first year dissolved that dream. A frustrated Francis turned to his mother for advice.
“After seeing those initial grades, my mother told me, ‘Go back [to UF] now because if your dad sees these, you won’t be going back,’” Francis recalls. “That let me know the seriousness of where I was.”
Relief arrived when Francis met an older engineering student who invited him to library study sessions and introduced him to Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity’s bright and experienced members.
“Once I joined that fraternity … we became each other’s support group,” says Francis, who quickly changed his major to criminal justice, in part because of his father’s work, but also because of the influence of several fraternity members who were aiming for law school. “I stay in contact with many of those guys. They are not only my peers but my friends — professionally and socially.”
Francis’ academic and social about-face was so successful he was invited into UF’s prestigious leadership honorary society, Florida Blue Key, joined another, Savant, and served as the Honor Court chancellor.
Shortly before his graduation, he decided law school would be his next challenge.
He knew his parents couldn’t afford the LSAT prep course, so he bought a prep book, looked up the LSAT testing schedule, divided the number of pages in the prep book by the number of days before the test — 40 — and began to study.
More Uphill Climbs
Law school, it would turn out, also did not come easy for Francis, who felt as if he were constantly falling behind.
“I hadn’t been around lawyers, didn’t know any lawyers and hadn’t seriously thought about law before then,” Francis said. So, unlike some of his classmates who grew up hearing about landmark cases and issues from family members, “all the concepts were new and unique to me.”
Once again, Francis’ determination, nurtured by his mentors, Professor Mike Seigel and Assistant Dean Rahim Reed, led him to eventually master his coursework. But more battles loomed. Following tradition, Francis then applied for clerkships at prestigious firms. He struggled to gain footing with any of them.
“Quite frankly, most minority law students were not getting internships with majority firms.” Francis said.
Determined to find out why, he volunteered with the law school’s career services office. There, he developed relationships with professional attorneys who came to UF looking for up-and-comers. He used what he learned to tailor his own resume. Success soon followed. He was hired as a clerk at the Bobo Spicer law firm, then brought on fulltime after graduation.
That was the first of only three firms he’s worked with throughout his career, and he is co-owner of the third.
Case of a Lifetime
In 2008, when he worked at Morgan & Morgan, owned by Gators John (BA ’78, JD ’82) and Ultima Morgan (BA ’77, JD ’80), Francis came across a case that would, years later, become a nationwide class action suit that Francis would lead and the National Bar Association would herald. For his extensive work, Francis received the Bar’s Vince Monroe Townsend Legends Award and was named a Game Changer by Politic365. The case, officially called “Pigford v. Glickman,” is better known as Black Farmers II.
Looking back, Francis says the circumstances were so shocking that at first he could hardly comprehend what he heard.
Although it has been common since the Great Depression for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to offer disaster relief grants and loans to farmers who lose their crops after hurricanes, droughts or floods, Francis learned of widespread racism and corruption that left Black farmers without any of the supports their white counterparts received.
For example, after numerous delays and supposedly lost paperwork, his client, a Black farmer, was finally told by a USDA official that no check would be issued because the relief loan was “too much money for a [racial slur] to receive.”
But in interview after interview with other Black farmers who filed complaints between 1983 and 1997, Francis heard the same or similar statements. Seven years of fieldwork by Francis, his colleagues and other firms revealed a substantial case against the USDA official and the organization as a whole. While Francis’ case began with 400 Black farmers, it was later expanded to about 20,000. He filed the case in 2004, but it wasn’t settled until 2010.
“Because of their rural areas and the times — there was no internet — each of these farmers suffered in silence,” Francis said. “They had no connectivity from town to town, state to state, to know this was happening all across the country. It was only through the farm advocacy organizations that they realized, ‘Hey, they’re doing this to us, too.’”
Francis won a $1.25 billion judgement for the farmers, most of which has been paid thus far. The suit also brought about major improvements to USDA operations, such as a civil rights program that over time has resulted in changes to agriculture as it pertains to minorities. Since the suit was won in 2010, the United States has seen a 9% increase in Black-owned farms, an 88% increase in Native American farm operators and a 14% increase in Hispanic farm operators.
“Many of these farmers lost their crops, their cattle … they lost the opportunity to farm,” Francis said of his clients. “It has been both rewarding and fulfilling to be able to have a part in helping these hardworking Black farmers achieve some measure of justice from the USDA.”
Today, Francis continues to devote his time to underdogs. He, for example, has represented a middle school girl who was mistreated by her school’s resource officer, a young girl who contracted an infection while hospitalized for her epilepsy, a 10-year-old boy who died after being hit by a tractor trailer, and a woman who was sexually assaulted by a hotel worker. For Francis, each case has been a reminder that human rights are threatened often and the world needs more defenders who understand their plight.
This is partly why he joined forces with two of his fellow UF law alumni, Yolanda Cash Jackson (BSJ ’80, JD ’90) of Miami and Paul Perkins (JD ’91) of Orlando, who together launched a UF scholarship for law students who earned undergraduate degrees at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
Francis says he was the first Black lawyer at both of his previous law firms. “That’s something that needs to be rectified,” he says.
Jackson had the idea for the scholarship and offered $25K to get it going. Paul Perkins joined in with another $25K. But Francis wanted to ensure the fund would be endowed — available forever — which required a $100K minimum gift. So, Francis gave the remaining $50K from the proceeds he earned on the Black Farmers’ case.
“The one thing I learned from that case … is that all those farmers wanted was a chance,” Francis said. “They didn’t ask for anything extra. They just wanted to be treated, and to be given the same opportunities, as everyone else.”
Francis said those many clients made him think about the ripple effect of actions.
They “plant seeds in good ground and don’t know who they’re providing food for at that time,” Francis said. “That’s the same concept behind this scholarship for me. I don’t know who is going to get this scholarship, but I know I want to plant seeds that will improve upon the numbers of black lawyers in the state.”
Since Francis, Jackson and Perkins started the scholarship fund, other Gator lawyers, such as Hugh Culverhouse (BSBA ’71, JD ’74) of Coral Gables, have learned of their efforts and joined forces en masse, with about 50 alumni contributing $1.2 million so far. College and alumni leaders say they’d like to grow the fund to $2 million by 2022 so the scholarship can be offered to 10 students per year.
The results of their efforts will be profound, says Francis, who wants the scholarship to also spark mentorship relationships with donors and encourage recipients to mentor others as they advance — to plant those seeds, in other words, and watch them grow.
Perkins says he’s not surprised Francis jumped in with a gift to endow the scholarship.
“He is an excellent lawyer and an even better person.” Perkins said. “He is very generous with his time and treasure and extremely devoted to his community. He is a role model to so many in the Orlando area in the legal community and the community at large. I feel blessed to call him my good friend.”
Francis takes more time to reflect these days. He surveys his community in Orlando and sometimes wonders what Richmond Estates would be like today if all the young people had access to scholarships and had also been influenced by the same kind of determination and work ethic his mother and stepfather instilled in him.
“My friends here are pretty diverse. Some are businesspeople and professionals, some are incarcerated and some are dead,” he said, adding that he strives to stay connected with locals, no matter their station in life, and with his Gator Nation friends and members of his fraternity and Florida Blue Key.
He holds tight to his roots and remains proud of his work: helping Morgan & Morgan build its firm by opening offices for them in Atlanta, Jackson, Miss., Boca Raton, Orlando and Miami. (At the latter, he co-led the team with the late famed attorney Johnny Cochran.) Francis left the firm in 2018 and established Osborne & Francis with his former law clerk supervisor and fellow Gator Joseph Osborne (JD ’90).
He’s proud of his family: two bright children and his wife of 20 years, Keisha. He’s proud of his alma mater, its No. 6 national ranking and the strides it has made to become more inclusive and diverse. He’s proud of his “investment in young people.” And, he’s proud to have defended the salt-of-the-earth farmers he talks about in reverent tones.
In fact, his pride shows through every farming metaphor he musters.
“Philanthropy means using what you have and replanting it to increase that bounty,” says Francis.
As his alma mater prepares to begin issuing the scholarships he made possible to “increase the bounty” of Black lawyers in Florida and beyond, Francis offers one admonition for the young people who might benefit from it:
“Be ready to use your talents for the good of others,” he urges. “That’s what it’s all about.”