For Older Blacks, Election Offers Fruits of Hard Journey

By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 2, 2008

Once or twice a week for the past month or so, Ruth Worthy, 91, has been going door-to-door in her Northeast D.C. neighborhood campaigning for Sen. Barack Obama.

She made the trek in her wheelchair or resting on the arm of her nurse.

"Dear, are you registered?" she would ask.

Worthy belongs to a generation of African Americans who have journeyed from some of the rawest and brutal eras of racism to the present, when they find themselves relishing the idea of a black man possibly becoming president.

For many blacks ages 90 and older, Tuesday will be one of the most historic events of their long lives. They lived through Jim Crow, the Depression, world wars, the horrors of Emmett Till and the promise of the civil rights movement. Now, they're watching Obama (D-Ill.) lead in the national presidential polls.

Be they women of relative privilege, such as Worthy, or those of working-class roots, many share the same awe at how far the world can come in a lifetime.

"I would speak to them in the courtyard or on the steps, wherever I would see them," Worthy said of those she met during her door-knocking. A hint of a Boston accent still lingers in her voice, though she's lived in the District for nearly 70 years.

Worthy grew up in a middle-class Boston home, born to a black doctor and his wife, the first African American to work at the U.S. Post Office in Beantown.

When she finished her undergraduate degree at Bridgewater College in Massachusetts, Worthy took a train to Marion, Ala., in the late 1930s to teach U.S. history for $80 a month at the Lincoln Normal School, in one of the Congregational schools for Negro children in the South. That first year, she taught those fortunate enough to attend school, including a quiet eighth-grader and B-average student, the future Coretta Scott King.

Like other black people in Alabama, Worthy was supposed to ride in the back of the bus. Because of her fair complexion, white passengers didn't seem to notice when she took a seat next to them in the front of the bus. Some of the other black passengers did notice, she recalled, and would only smile, offer her a wink or, later, earnestly whisper to her to be careful.

"Yes, dear, I guess I was a little defiant," she said with a chuckle.

Arthur Greene, 91, uses a wheelchair and rarely leaves his Arlington County home except for church on Sundays and doctor's appointments. But he wasn't going to miss this chance to vote.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company