A Heart Big Enough for Every Colored Child: Frank Farrell & The Christmas Gift Fund

Frank Peter Farrell’s was a life well-lived. He reared a large family, won the confidence of men of prominence, was active in civic and fraternal work, and engaged in any and all efforts he could for the uplift of his people. Perhaps his greatest legacy however, was the more than twenty years he spent as Chairman of The Times-Picayune Christmas Gift Fund. The reader may not be aware of the fact that for over a half-century, there existed two Christmas toy funds sponsored by New Orleans’ leading morning newspaper.

The Doll and Toy Fund was begun in 1896 by The Times Democrat, a predecessor of the Picayune, to provide Christmas gifts for the needy children of New Orleans. In keeping with the segregated nature of life at that time, the fund was created with white children in mind. Only sporadically would disbursements be made to colored children, typically if there was a surplus after the white children had received their gifts. In 1913, this situation was rectified in part with the establishment of the Christmas Gift Fund, sometimes known as the ‘Colored’ Doll and Toy Fund. For fifty-two Christmases from 1913 to 1965, these two funds coexisted and were funded by donations raised by community members and organizing committees, with the funds being remitted to The Times-Picayune.

The first year for the Christmas Gift Fund met with great success considering it was formed just three weeks before Christmas. The leaders of the colored community, men such as attorney James Madison Vance, fraternalist S. W. Green, Customs official Walter L. Cohen, Reverend Henderson H. Dunn, and others championed the cause, making significant contributions and collecting others from their friends and acquaintances. Quickly, Frank Farrell emerged as the foremost solicitor for the Fund.

During his many years as Chairman, Farrell oversaw the distribution of toys to thousands of colored children. In the early years, the annual distribution of toys was done at the Pythian Temple. The crowds grew so large that it was moved to the McDonogh No. 35 High School on Rampart Street, and much later to Pelican Stadium. Among the fundraisers Farrell organized for the Fund were benefit dances at the Pythian Temple and Iroquois Theatre and exhibition games in football and basketball. The editor of The Louisiana Weekly once wrote that Farrell had a heart large enough to fit inside every colored child in the city. This was indeed a great tribute to a man who did so much and won the respect of leaders both white and black.

Santa Bestows Gifts on Poor New Orleans Children a Century Ago, November 30, 2014, NOLA.com – The Times-Picayune Archive

Frank Peter Farrell was born in 1864 in New Orleans to Francis Farrell and Rosa Barrois. His father, according to subsequent census records, was Italian. From his father and mother, Frank had at least two full siblings, Victoria and Charles Farrell. His mother later had at least five children – Ernestine, Louis, Antonia, Ernest, and Anthony –  by an Italian named Anthony Despenza (also spelled Dispenza).

Frank married Victoria Hurst on 4 January 1886, a marriage that would last a half-century until his death in 1936. They had thirteen children – Celestine (Mrs. Antoine J. Ballon); Frank P, Jr.; Rosa; Charles J.; Beatrice (Mrs. George F. Day, later Mrs. Louis H. Bustill); Victoria (Mrs. DePriest); Myra (Mrs. Fred C. Jenkins); George J.; Ruth (Mrs. Moran J. Ewell); Houston P.; Edwin S.; Mildred (Mrs. Henry P. Bellinger); and Ezell (Mrs. Henry Moore).

Farrell spent nearly his entire career working in the offices of Grant & Grant, a respected law firm in the city. He also managed for many years the cloak room in the old French Opera House. He served many Carnivals up until World War I as an attendant on the yacht aboard which His Majesty Rex arrived. These occupations put him in contact with many of the leading people in the city and he proved himself worthy of their acquaintance and confidence.

Farrell was an adept writer and often took up issues of the day in letters-to-the-editor which he penned for The Times-Picayune and The New Orleans Item. Among his topics were “The Negro Question” (T-P, 20 April 1921, p. 8), “A Plea for the Bayou Road Colored School” (Item, 3 August 1922, p. 22) and “The Negro and the War” (T-P, 15 April 1918, p. 8). During the World War I, he was selected to chair the canteen operated for colored soldiers by Auxiliary Branch No. 6 of the American Red Cross. He was the first man in the city to offer his assistance to colored branches of the Red Cross upon their establishment.

In one particularly interest letter-to-the-editor entitled “Keep Cool,” (T-P, 31 July 1919, p. 6), he lamented the race riot which had broken out in Chicago and attributed it to the frustration of black who had left the Southland seeking opportunities and advantages in the North, which did not materialize. He noted the relative interracial harmony in New Orleans and encouraged readers, as a recent editorial has also done, to “keep cool.” He also wrote a letter in 1921, lamented the demise of the old French Opera House and the plans of city leaders to build a modern, utilitarian auditorium in its place: “There seems to be a disposition on the part of some to set at naught things of a historical nature belonging to old New Orleans, and the desecration of the spot where the French Opera House stood seems to be in line with the new progress New Orleans is making in the downtown section of the city.” Farrell was very active in the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, attending the annual conventions and serving as a correspondent for the Odd Fellows Journal, under the nom de plume of “Peter Porcupine.”

“Odd Fellows Flock Here For Biennial Convention.” A Group of Delegates including Frank P. Farrell at far right. Afro-American [Baltimore] 18 September 1926, page A3.

In addition to the Odd Fellows, Farrell was a member of the Economy Society and active in Republican politics. Having been stricken with illness in 1935, he retired from many of his activities. As a tribute, the other leaders of the Christmas Gift Fund named him “Honorary Chairman for Life.” He died in his home of many years at 527 South Galvez Street on 13 May 1936. He was buried two days later with a Requiem Mass at Saint Katherine’s Church and interred in Mount Olivet Cemetery.

Sources: The Times-Picayune, 14 May 1936, page 2; 15 May 1936, page 12; Anthony J. Stanonis, Creating the Big Easy: New Orleans and the Emergence of Modern Tourism, 1918-1945 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006) 50; The Louisiana Weekly, 16 May 1936, page 8.

Jari C. Honora

9 thoughts on “A Heart Big Enough for Every Colored Child: Frank Farrell & The Christmas Gift Fund

  1. Would like to contact Mr Honora about the life of Frank Peter Farrell to create a short film piece on the Italian influence and contribution to the Greater New Orleans community. Thanks!

  2. It is amazing to see this story in print, having heard it many times from Frank Farrell’s granddaughter, my grandmother Marie Louise Reneau (Ballon) who we having the honor of still having with us at 101 years old.

  3. I recently visited New Orleans the first time in 63 years and heard of my great grandfather Frank Farrell. And my great grandmother Victoria. I also visited there home in NOLA with my sisters Cecilia and Rita

  4. Great to find information regarding my great grandfather, Frank Farrell. My father was Wilfred Wesley Farrell. It would be great to share information with my Aunt Mildred Robertson (Mildred Farrell) who is 101 years old, my father’s sister) and still lives in New Orleans LA. My name is Douglas Farrell and I had 6 brothers and 1 sister.

  5. My father Wilfred Wesley Farrell was a famous fighter in New Orleans in the 1930’s (known as “Wesley Farrell). His father was Charles Farrell, one of Frank Peter Farrell’s sons.

  6. My great grandfather…great to find this information as it confirms the stories that my father Wilfred Wesley Farrell had shared with me throughout his life. Many thanks to my brother Douglas for sharing this with me. I might add that Frank’s father Francis Farrell’s birth name is “Francesco Peter Mascario” . The name was changed by Frank’s sister after their mother passed because of the discrimination against Italians.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *