The polls had just closed and Rosa Washington-Olson had completed her service and was about to go home. Nothing much was different about the night: Washington-Olson had worked at the Davis, California polling place on every Election Day, save one, since 1994. General elections. Primaries. Runoffs. Special elections. They were all the same to her: each serving as an opportunity to celebrate a right and a privilege too often ignored, taken for granted.
She knows better than to treat it lightly.
“When I finished college and went to register to vote in Alabama, at the time I had to recite the Preamble to the Constitution, and I had to write 10 things that made a good citizen, and things like that,” the 70-year-old recalls. Because she was African American, Washington-Olson fell victim to the elaborate system of “literacy tests” in place in the South prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1965—a system designed to deny the vote to people of color. Often the testing was accompanied by intimidation, including economic pressure, false arrests, and violence.
When she moved to California in 1968 with her husband, an Air Force officer assigned to Travis Air Force Base, she couldn’t believe that all she had to do was to put her name and address on a voter registration card. After retiring from a career in Special Education, she decided to work at the polls. It was “something I could do,” she says. “I feel that we take our freedoms for granted and we have so many—and one of them is to vote.”
Back to November 4, 2008. Rosa Washington-Olson had completed her service and was about to go home. Nothing much was different about the night: Washington-Olson had worked at the Davis, California polling place on every Election Day, save one, since 1994.
But this one was different.
Before leaving the polling place, Rosa Washington-Olson got the news that Barack Obama—an African American—had been elected President of the United States.
At the time, “I wasn’t surprised,” she says. She had had a feeling, for more than a year: “Something in me said that he had to be elected. I felt there was something in him that would heal the world.”
It wasn’t emotional for her until she got home and saw Obama’s acceptance speech. “It was the most powerful speech: there was no silliness …. There was seriousness about it; he means business.”
That was when it really struck her, “seeing the older black people crying, tears running down their faces … and to see the joy coming from people who had never, ever exercised their right to vote before.
“His running, first of all, was a big statement—and then to win!—and for African Americans to see something that they never dreamed would happen in their lifetimes …”
Washington-Olson, a member of Davis UMC, is an active United Methodist. She has been four times a delegate to General Conference, a delegate to World Methodist Conference three times, a delegate to the first European Methodist Conference, and served eight years on the General Board of Higher Education, among other involvements. (In photo above, she is shown to the right of Bishop Brown, on his left, at Western Jurisdiction Conference 2008.)
“I wouldn’t have voted for just any black man,” she says. She believes that Obama “has integrity. High morals, values, standards. He’s a family man, a Christian man, a visionary. He represents so much—and happens to be a black man—of what I respect and admire.
“I think he will bring hope, he will bring healing.” She says, “I prayed for him all along—and will continue to pray.”