Rosa Gourdine Franklin was the first African American woman to serve in the Washington State Senate and the first Black woman in the United States to be voted Senate President Pro Tempore by her peers. After working for 42 years in a variety of healthcare settings, she served 20 years representing the 29th District in the Washington State Legislature (1991-1993 in the House of Representatives, 1993-2010 in the Senate). With a focus on education, environmental issues, healthcare, veterans, and labor unions, her legislative accomplishments include the state's first environmental justice bill, Senate Bill 6401, in 1993; the creation of a long-term coordinated trauma-care system for the City of Tacoma in 1996; and establishment of a statewide Governor's Interagency Council on Health Disparities in 2006. Throughout her career in healthcare and public service, Franklin also served as a role model and mentor for other nurses and lawmakers, including Washington's first woman and out lesbian Speaker of the House, Laurie Jinkins. Often serving in the Legislature as the only African American (and sometimes the only person of color) in the room, her tenure paved the way for many other women in the Legislature and for future legislators of color.
Born Rosa Lee Gourdine at Moncks Corner, in incorporated Cordesville, South Carolina, Franklin spent her early childhood with her parents, James and Henrietta. She was the fifth child and the first daughter in what would become a family of 11 siblings. Her mother was a homemaker with a great deal of responsibility as the Gourdine family grew. Her father was a corn farmer. He also served as a Sunday school teacher and deacon of the local Baptist church, just across the street from the Gourdine family home. The family lived in a four-room house on land owned by her great-uncle, a freedman.
Growing up during the Depression had its hardships. The family lived primarily through bartering with neighbors and James's modest Works Progress Administration salary. Nevertheless, Franklin remembered a home full of love, "a roof over our heads with caring parents. We learned to share, get the work done, care for each other, and respect our elders" (Franklin, Telling My Story, 2).
When Rosa was 7 years old, her mother's oldest sister, Julia Mayhams, asked James and Henrietta Gourdine if their daughter could come live with her in Georgetown, South Carolina, some 50 miles away. James and Henrietta agreed on two conditions: first, that Rosa had to return home to Cordesville each summer, and second, that Julia and her husband Norridge would not try to legally adopt her.
Growing up in Georgetown brought many lifestyle changes for Franklin. Georgetown was a port city and her "second set of parents" (as she grew to call them) had the means to lavish resources and attention on her, almost as an only child. Their four children were all grown and had left home. Franklin remembered delivering newspapers and meals for people who needed them. Her aunt and uncle opened their home frequently to the sailors who came into port who were unable to find lodging in segregated Georgetown. Their home was an environment full of music-making and diverse guests.
Both sets of Franklin's "parents" instilled in her a deep respect for education and an ethic of care for her community. She grew up feeling both cherished and held to high expectations. Although she attended segregated schools with fewer resources than neighboring white schools, she experienced a great deal of encouragement and love from her teachers at Howard High School in Georgetown.
Marriage and a Career in Nursing
With the support and encouragement of Franklin's cousin Miriam, who was a nurse, Franklin applied for the United States cadet nursing program and was accepted in 1945. She began her training at the Good Samaritan Waverly Nursing School in Columbia, South Carolina, where she developed a great sense of camaraderie with her class; she and her classmates continued to hold reunions through the 2000s. Given the segregated nature of the medical field, Good Samaritan was a school built by African Americans, for African Americans, to meet the healthcare needs of the community. She graduated as Class President in 1948.
While in nursing school, Franklin and her classmates would walk to the nearby United States Organization (USO) club on their days off. They sang and danced, and there Franklin met her future husband James, who was a GI stationed at nearby Fort Jackson. The couple married in November 1948 and maintained a close partnership until James's death in 2021; Franklin considered their seven-decades-plus marriage one of her greatest accomplishments.
The day after their wedding, James Franklin was deployed to Germany, and his junior rank meant he was not allowed to have his family with him at first. Rosa continued with her nursing career in the United States. Eventually, her wide-ranging curiosity and love of people led her to work in a variety of healthcare settings. In 1948 she began working in labor and delivery at the psychiatric hospital Greystone Park in New Jersey. Wanting a different work schedule and a change of work environment, she applied to the Brooklyn Jewish Hospital in 1949. There she met Jewish women who she would later realize were refugees; these encounters would shape her understanding of the Nazi death camps in Germany. Franklin visited Dachau in the 1950s, and this experience further cemented her commitment to social justice. "I was reminded of the hostilities people have faced. [It] took me back to how the slaves were treated simply because they were of a different color and race" (Franklin, 10-11).
In 1950, Franklin's husband had advanced enough in military rank to have family members join him. Rosa joined him in Germany and the couple started their family in the early 1950s with children Werner and Kim, followed by a second daughter Sara (b. 1962). Franklin volunteered as a "Gray Lady" in the Red Cross and then found work at the Field Hospital in Munich. Given the cosmopolitan nature of her years in Georgetown, she was eager to travel and see more of Europe during her years living there.
The Franklins first moved to Tacoma in 1954 when James Franklin was stationed at Fort Lewis. Rosa Franklin would eventually work at the American Lake Veterans Administration hospital in Tacoma, where she challenged a pattern of women who did not want to be seen by African American doctors. "Even though desegregation of the military had taken place," she reflected in a 2018 interview, "there were people still with segregated minds" (Nimura, 179).
Despite redlining housing restrictions based on race, and after living in World War II-era housing at Fort Lewis, the Franklins purchased their first home. Rosa Franklin began to establish roots in her adopted hometown, pursuing her Bachelors degree from the College of Puget Sound (later University of Puget Sound). She had intended to gain her Bachelors in nursing, but discovered that the requirements would essentially replicate her coursework from Good Waverly Samaritan and changed her major. Decades later, as a legislator, she would work successfully to remove redundant requirements for nursing credentials.
Another deployment took the Franklins again to Germany in 1959, but they returned to the United States in 1963, where Franklin worked briefly as a home health nursing coordinator in Colorado. The family moved back to Tacoma and she finally completed her double Bachelors degree in Biology and English from the College of Puget Sound in 1968.
Her growing interest in women's health led her to work at Tacoma's Alice Hamilton Clinic and to complete the Gynecorps nurses training certification in women's health at the University of Washington in 1974. She volunteered with Dr. George Tanbara at his health clinic at Lister Elementary on Tacoma's Eastside, and worked with disabled children in the city's predominantly Black Hilltop neighborhood. Toward the end of her nursing career, from 1975-1984, she worked with Upjohn Health Care Services, working to coordinate home health-aide assistance for seniors.
By the time Franklin retired from her nursing career in 1993 to serve in the Washington State Legislature, she had worked with a wide range of people across geographies, physical and mental abilities, political beliefs, races, ages, and ethnicities. The Washington State Nurses Association recognized her with a 2002 induction into its Hall of Fame. She served in African American nursing groups such as the Tacoma Ebony Nurses Association and Mary Mahoney Professional Nurses Organization, but also worked to integrate broader associations such as the Pierce County and Washington State Nurses Associations. This diversity of experience would serve her well as a legislator.
Passions for Community and Education
Franklin had grown up in a family and community that prioritized involvement and public service. Delivering newspapers and meals from her childhood Georgetown home to registering for the cadet-nurse program and serving in the Red Cross as a volunteer overseas, she had always valued community involvement.
In addition to serving as a leader for her children's Cub Scout and Girl Scout troops, she was active in the Tacoma community before running for political office. She worked with the Tacoma Urban League and the Pierce County Health Council in the 1970s. She served on several citywide governing committees, including the Citizen Budget Review, Land Use, Planning Commission, and Human Resources Task Force. She worked on the city's Safe Streets campaign in 1989-1990. She volunteered on political campaigns, including Jesse Jackson's "Rainbow Coalition" for President in 1988. Franklin served as Precinct Committee Officer for the 29th District from 1972-1988. In 1976 and again in 1988, she traveled to the Democratic National Convention as a delegate. She was widely known in the 29th District as a peacemaker who lived by her values. By the time Franklin ran for office, she had built a foundation of community support through decades of volunteering, advocacy, and local government in Tacoma.
Franklin had also grown up in a family and community that prioritized education. As she said in a 1995 interview, "Education is the tool by which you then rise and rise above" (Walter). It continued to be a lifelong pursuit and passion for her. In 1974, she received a Masters degree in Social Sciences and Human Relations from Pacific Lutheran University, then took continuing education classes at local community colleges throughout her career in healthcare. As a legislator, she worked to secure funding for the establishment of the University of Washington, Tacoma. As Franklin's longtime legislative assistant Annette Swillie (b. 1968) noted, her approach to education carried over to her time in the Legislature, emphasizing the power of well-researched and carefully laid-out information for the voters from her district and across the state. "The greatest challenge facing one as an elected official," she wrote to a college student in 2005, "is getting voters to understand that complicated issues do not have cookie-cutter solutions ... It takes time, working together, sorting out problems in order to reach meaningful solutions" (Nimura, 74).
Persistence Pays Off
Franklin had spent four decades in healthcare, several of them in Tacoma, and had learned how to work with people across a wide range of ages, races, occupations, political beliefs, and abilities. Yet despite her breadth of community and political involvement in the 1960s and 1970s, her successful run for political office was not a given. She ran for Tacoma City Council in 1973 and 1987; she ran for a freeholder position involving a charter form of city government in 1979. These campaigns were all unsuccessful. At first, she was reluctant to run for the 29th District Representative office, replacing 15-term Democratic incumbent P. J. Gallagher (1915-1991). Yet as the popular 2018 saying goes, "she persisted." Franklin credited Rosie Hargrove, then chair of the Pierce County Democrats, as the person who convinced her to run for the Washington State House of Representatives in 1990.
Franklin's campaign was rooted in the community she had served. The recreation room in her Tacoma house served as her campaign headquarters. Her campaign donations were often small and from a wide range of donors. Her opponent Gordon Mandt (1929-2015) painted himself as the "natural" successor to a white, male, blue-collar, conservative line of legislators in the 29th District. By contrast, Franklin tapped into her relationships in the community, including labor unions, healthcare workers, veterans, progressive Democrats, and communities of color. She purposely invited individuals who had not been involved with political campaigns before, exemplifying the motto of the 1920s colored women's clubs to "lift as you climb."
Other African Americans would serve in Tacoma public office, including mayors Harold Moss (1929-2020), Marilyn Strickland (b. 1962) and Victoria Woodard (b. 1965). Yet due to Franklin's remarkable persistence and success, former Tacoma mayor Bill Baarsma (b. 1942) called Franklin's 1990 election "a transformative moment in Tacoma politics" (Nimura, 55).
From Representative to Senator
Shortly after arriving in Olympia, Franklin realized she could not serve as she wanted to serve and maintain her fulltime nursing career, so she decided to retire from nursing. However, the skills she had acquired through decades of healthcare and community service worked well in the Legislature. She was the third African American woman to serve in the House of Representatives after Marjorie King (1921-1996) and Peggy Maxie (b.1936). In the House, Franklin worked to build relationships with other lawmakers, studying the methods used to pass legislation effectively.
She served one term in the House of Representatives from 1990-1992 before being appointed to her first term in the Senate. In January 1993, 29th District Senator A. L. "Slim" Rasmussen (1909-1993), former Tacoma mayor, died unexpectedly from leukemia. The Pierce County Democrats Council interviewed several candidates for his replacement and selected Franklin as their top choice. She agreed with one condition: that she would serve on the Senate Health Committee, since health remained her top legislative priority. On January 28, 1993, Franklin was sworn in as the state's first African American woman senator. The 29th District reelected her for several more senate terms until her retirement in 2010.
Affordable housing for all Washington residents was one of Franklin's priorities as a representative and then as a senator; in 1993, she prime sponsored the Washington Housing Policy Act (Senate Bill 5584), which established the Affordable Housing Advisory Board (AHAB) and continues to report on affordable housing throughout the state (Nimura, 59-60).
Being appointed to President Bill Clinton's (b. 1946) National Environmental Justice Advisory Council in 1993 expanded Franklin's broad interest in healthcare. The group required some travel around the country, learning about hazardous waste sites and toxic pollution, particularly those located near communities of color. She credits this experience with broadening her ideas of public health and healthcare, seeing firsthand how determining factors of health, environment, and race were intertwined. In 1993 she authored the state's first environmental equity bill (Senate Bill 6401), studying the public health and environmental impact of hazardous waste sites and industrial pollution sources (Nimura, 63-64).
From 2004-2006, Franklin created what would become a signature piece of her legislative legacy: the Governor's Interagency Council on Health Disparities. The council brings together stakeholders from African American, Asian American, Native American, and Latinx communities, as well as public agencies such as the state departments of agriculture, commerce, early learning, ecology, health and social services, the Health Care Authority, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, and the Workforce Training Board. "She has a strong ethic of service to her community," said Sen. Steve Conway (b. 1944), Franklin's seat mate in the 29th District for years (Nagle). Franklin's youngest daughter, Sara, served on the Council as well. The Council is still meeting as of 2022; it provides guidance for state lawmakers on the social determinants of health and health equity.
Franklin quickly gained leadership positions in the senate; she served as Democratic Whip (1997), Majority Whip (1999), and Democratic Assistant Floor Leader (2003). In 2001, her peers elected her Senate President Pro Tempore, which meant that she presided over the Senate when the Lieutenant Governor was absent or unable to do so. She served as President Pro Tem from 2001-2002 and again from 2005-2010. She was the first African American woman in the United States to serve in this position in her state Senate. Franklin was known by her peers in the Senate as "the second fastest gavel," meaning that she was able to make decisions quickly from the rostrum and conduct Senate business effectively.
In 2010, Franklin consulted with her family and decided to retire from the Legislature. Her grandchildren were coming of age and she wanted to be present for them. "I will miss the fast pace of legislative sessions and the debate on public policy," she wrote in a farewell message to her colleagues. "I plan to continue working to make our communities, state and nation live up to the principles on which they were founded and that the constitution represents all of us and not just a select few" (Schrader).
Retirement for Franklin meant returning to her community, and she continued to be active in groups such as the Asia Pacific Cultural Center, League of Women Voters, Washington State Nurses Association, and a progressive network of interfaith communities. Meanwhile, awards continued to roll in, including the Martin Luther King Jr. Dream Award from the University of Washington Tacoma (2019) and the establishment of a nursing scholarship fund in her honor. An affordable, income-subsidized apartment complex for seniors in the Hilltop neighborhood of Tacoma was named Mercy Rosa Franklin Place in 2021. Washington Sen. Emily Randall (b. 1985) spearheaded a bill to name a scholarship for the legislative internship program after Franklin. And in 2021, the board of Metro Parks Tacoma voted unanimously to rename Franklin Park "Senator Rosa Franklin Park" -- just blocks from the first house she and her family had bought in Tacoma.