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.

About a month ago, when Meals on Wheels brought Greene his meal, they also dropped off an absentee ballot. Greene remembers growing up in Jim Crow Virginia, looking for restaurants that didn't display "white only" signs in Rosslyn or Baileys Crossroads, or being forced to ride in the back of the trolleys between Arlington and the District.

"I never thought it would happen in my lifetime," he said of Obama's campaign. "I think if I can see this and if it happens, I'll thank my lucky stars and my God for letting me live so long to be able to see the advancements of my people."

Greene spent most of his life working as an exterminator, traveling to large houses in the white, affluent Virginia suburbs such as Vienna and Falls Church. At times, some of the homeowners wouldn't allow him inside.

"I was trying to make a living the best I knew how," he recalled. "I'd been to people's houses, and they'd tell me, 'I'm sorry, you can't come in here.' Or they say, 'We didn't know you were colored.' I was spraying for roaches, fleas and termites, but they wouldn't let me in."

So he'd turn around and leave. "That was the way things was. It wasn't worth the fight."

Minnie Small, 92, remembers choosing her fights carefully, too.

She lives in Silver Spring with her daughter and granddaughter, having moved four years ago from the Bronx, N.Y.

At 20, she had traveled there from Charlotte in hopes of escaping the ugliness of Southern racism. New York wasn't Charlotte, but it wasn't the promised land either.

During the 1950s, Small was a housewife and mother whose husband, Oliver, worked as an insurance salesman for United Mutual Life in New York. Small and her family moved from Manhattan to the Bronx, with hopes of enrolling their four small children in better Catholic schools.

Raised Methodist, she converted to Catholicism. But she still had to struggle with the priests and nuns at Our Lady of Grace schools to enroll her children. "They didn't want blacks there," she said.

After weeks of meetings, the children were enrolled. Often, Small's children were the only African Americans in their classes. Once, when her son Donald was 13, she noticed that his final grades were lower than the grades on his homework and tests. She figured that the teachers did not want to give him a higher final grade so that the school wouldn't have to award him a scholarship.

"I marched down there and said, 'If my son deserves an F, you give him an F. But if my son deserves an A, you give him an A,' " she said.

Barely 5 feet, she prides herself on being a tough New Yorker But when Small talks about voting Tuesday, tears fall down her face.

Her parents, husband and four brothers and sisters didn't live long enough to see this possibility, and Small is so grateful that she did.

"Every day I pray for him and his family," she said of Obama. "I am so thankful I'm still here to see this."

When she and one of her youngest great-grandchildren, Kailah, watch Obama on television, a refrain that has become common among black parents comes to mind. "I always told my children they could grow up to be whatever they want," Small said. "That's what you do as a parent. But now, that seems to be really true."

Small plans on taking a folding chair with her to vote Tuesday so she can rest in line as she waits.

"I still can't believe it," she said during a brief break from one of her daily bridge games at the Holiday Park Senior Center in Wheaton. "At last, we as a black people have stayed here, took a lot, but it was worth all the struggles we've gone through."

Ruth Worthy has lived her life believing in the value of those struggles.

She kept in touch with her former student and her husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and the three became friends.

She moved to Washington in 1941 and taught at several schools, associating with such black historic figures as Carter G. Woodson, James Weldon Johnson and John Hope Franklin.

Now, Worthy is putting her hope in Obama. But no matter the election outcome, she said, she's proud of Obama's journey.

"He's been able to reach where he is in part due to what many of us have fought for, to what so many have died hoping to see. So I feel some pride in him. Yes, I think I do," she said.

"Don't you think so, dear?"

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company