By Matt Nagle
February is Black History Month, and there seems no better time to celebrate a great achievement by our state’s first African American woman senator, Rosa Franklin.
After working for 20 years as Washington State Senator for the 29th Legislative District – and many more years prior in health care and social justice – retired Sen. Franklin has chronicled her experience in a biographical oral history titled “Rosa Franklin – A Life in Health Care, Public Service, and Social Justice.”
On Jan. 30, Asia Pacific Cultural Center (APCC) hosted the beloved senator and her biographer, Tamiko Nimura, for a book signing and party to honor both women and Franklin’s gift of partnering with Nimura to put her life stories on paper to share with people everywhere.
Sen. Franklin wanted this event to be held in her district, and APCC proved to be the perfect venue, as Franklin is on its board of directors. With at least 200 people in attendance, many political and community leaders spoke their praises for Franklin, including APCC Executive Director Lua Pritchard, Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards, community leader Lyle Quasim, Pacific Lutheran University President Allan Belton, and Washington State Speaker of the House Laurie Jinkins. Twelve-year-old Savalago Chanel Vaielua, sang a lovely rendition of the National Anthem, and traditional Cambodian dancers performed to an appreciative audience.
Tacoma Weekly caught up with Sen. Franklin after the event and she told of her joy at being the guest of honor that evening.
“I was just overwhelmed and surprised to see so many people there, and on such a rainy day,” she said. “I even got my husband to go and he still talks about it – he says he didn’t know that so many people knew me. So many of my friends from nursing and people I hadn’t seen for a while, staff from Olympia… I was just really overjoyed and I was so appreciative.”
Nimura commented on how noteworthy it was to see such a cross-section of the community there to show their love for Franklin – a mix of races, genders and nationalities keenly reflecting the subtitle of Franklin’s book, “health care, public service and social justice.”
“You could see folks from all those three areas pretty clearly,” Nimura said. “Folks in scrubs who drove down from Seattle, elected officials current and past – people from all different areas of communities that she has touched.”
Nimura told the Tacoma Weekly that she has been “over-the-moon honored to be a part of Senator Franklin’s journey and I’m grateful to be in such
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, prior to the APCC event, Franklin was honored on the Senate floor by her colleagues in celebration of her new book. There, she showed her inimitable sense of humor when she expressed disbelief that the Washington State Legislature Oral History Program Committee would ask her to write her memoirs.
“When Sen. Sam Hunt called me several months ago and said ‘the legislative oral history committee has voted for you to tell your story,’ I thought maybe he was kidding,” she said. “It is indeed a deep honor to be back. It’s overwhelming, really.”
FROM GRASSROOTS TO MARBLE STEPS
Great humility coupled with a no nonsense attitude have endeared Sen. Franklin to countless people over the years. That and her life achievements that include being the first African American woman to serve as a Washington State senator. She served one term in the House of Representatives from 1991-1993, and was appointed to the Senate in 1993 then elected to the position in the subsequent election. She served until 2011. She also served as President Pro Tempore in the Senate.
But Sen. Franklin’s story begins long before she walked the hallowed hall of Olympia. In fact, in writing the prologue to Franklin’s oral history, Nimura told the story of when Franklin bought her first home in Tacoma in the late 1950s. The realtor, visibly reluctant to work with Franklin, tried to steer her to buy on the Eastside, “where Tacoma’s racially restrictive covenants had driven many people of color,” as Nimura wrote.
Franklin was having none of it, and invited the realtor in to talk and come to a solution, a hallmark of who Franklin is. Her husband overseas in the military and with children in tow, she told the realtor, “I’m looking to buy a house where I want to go, not where you want to take me.”
Thus begins the story of Rosa Franklin as a new Tacoman, a far piece from Moncks Corner, SC where she was born in 1927, the youngest of 12 children. After high school, she studied nursing and went into hospital work. When her husband became stationed in Germany, she went with him and there she stayed until he was relocated to Tacoma where Franklin has lived ever since.
With high respect for education, Franklin graduated from Good Samaritan Waverly Hospital School of Nursing, Columbia, South Carolina; the University of Puget Sound; and Pacific Lutheran University. She obtained a women’s Health Care Specialist Certificate from the University of Washington and an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Puget Sound.
Sen. Franklin’s appetite for community volunteerism led her to numerous places such as the Pierce County Nurses Association, the League of Women Voters and as a precinct officer for the 29th Legislative District. After investing 42 years in nursing, it was in 1990 that she turned her attention to public service and ran for the state legislature as representative, organizing a grassroots campaign focused on health care and social justice. She won in that election and was re-elected in 1992 when, in that same year, she was appointed state senator for the 29th district. She won election to the seat the next year, and then ran unchallenged in her three successive re-elections. She served as Democratic Whip, Majority Whip and twice as President Pro Tempore, culminating in 20 years of service to the people of Tacoma.
“It was never really my intention to run for the legislature,” she said. “But a friend of mine kept urging me. I kept saying no and she said, ‘I’m going to call your husband,’” Franklin recalled with a laugh. “Finally I said yes and we headed to Olympia to make the call to the representative whose seat I ran for (P.J. Gallagher).”
Among her accomplishments was to launch the Governor’s Interagency Council on Health Disparities to improve care for those affected by health care disparities due to race, gender and/or ethnicity. Another of Franklin’s career highlights was establishing the Washington Housing Policy Act for affordable housing.
Sen. Franklin is an inductee in the Washington State Nurses Association Hall of Fame and earned a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Washington State Democratic Party.
A TEAM EFFORT
For Franklin’s biographer Nimura, this is her first published book of her writing and editing career. A third-generation Japanese American and second-generation Filipina American, Nimura is a freelance writer, essayist, community journalist and public historian with academic training in literature and American ethnic studies. The two came together after Franklin heard Nimura speak at a gathering of a cross-cultural storytelling group WILLO – Women’s Intergenerational Living Legacy Organization, for which Franklin is an advisor. Hearing Nimura speak of giving back to community, and being carried by community, Franklin asked for Nimura’s resume and the rest, as they say, is history. Nimura’s appointment as Franklin’s biographer was vetted by the Washington State Legislature Oral History Program Committee and Nimura went right to work.
Franklin said of her, “I heard her story and liked her presentation. She seemed like a very personable person to work with and it was great to work with her. We did a lot of laughing and for me, if you live a life that you don’t have any hidden agendas, it’s easy to tell your story. I had nothing to hide.”
Nimura called it a privilege to spend time in one-on-one conversations with the senator, which started from the first day they met. A conference room at Pacific Lutheran University made the perfect meeting place, made possible by Lace Smith, associate vice president of marketing and communications at PLU, who also helped secure PLU co-sponsorship of the event.
“We met in November 2018, on Election Day, and talked for almost and hour and a half. It was a lovely conversation. She started to tell me things about her past, her first trip to Europe, and it was wonderful to sit there listening to her talk about her life. She is such a warm and loving person, and I can’t believe that I got to spend time with her and listen to her talk about her life.”
The senator said that the book project was worth it all, as it presented challenges along the way trying to remember her life over more than half a century and building the correct timeline.
“You start going through all your papers and everything, and I found things that I didn’t even remember doing. It was funny to look back on those younger years,” like when she rode a bicycle through Central Park and learned to drive in Brooklyn. Driving alone across country brought back fond memories. “I would just get behind a truck,” she said. “Back in those early days in the ’50s, truckers were the safest people to drive behind – just get a map and follow the truckers.”
One thing that is a trademark with Sen. Franklin is that she never says that she did this or that singlehandedly – that there were always people with her making things happen. For example, “I had a wonderful staff – really great people to work with,” she said of her colleagues in Olympia.
“There’s always somebody else that helps you. I never believe that there’s a self made person – somebody always helps. That’s why it is so important that you reach back and help somebody else as you head up the ladder – lifting as you climb.”
When asked what she hopes readers will take away from her book, she said, “Respecting the past, living in the present, looking to the future. For anyone who reads my history, as I really grew and matured and learned and saw what was happening in he world, I knew things could be better. My hope is to ask yourself, ‘What can I do in order to make the world better for the next person?’ I wanted to leave something for our up-and-coming youth and young people – for them to give real thought to what they have, that it is not something that just dropped in their laps. People had to work for it. You need to work together to get things accomplished.”
Nimura voiced deep gratitude to the Asia Pacific Cultural Center and Director Lua Pritchard, Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma Historical Society and the Washington State Legislature Oral History Program for co-sponsoring the APCC book-signing event.
As Nimura summed up perfectly in her prologue, “Rosa Franklin’s lifelong commitment to social justice is an inspiration in a time when many have lost faith in government.”
“Rosa Franklin – A Life in Health Care, Public Service, and Social Justice” is available now at the Washington State Legislature Gift Center in the Washington State Capitol Building, 416 Sid Snyder Ave. SW, # 110, Olympia. Call (360) 786-1889. All proceeds from sales will go into an account that funds Capitol preservation, the state library and archives, and the legislative oral history program.