On January 26, 1993, Rosa Gourdine Franklin (b. 1927) is sworn in as Washington state’s first African American woman senator. Franklin has just completed two years of her first term as a State Representative from the 29th District when 29th District Senator, A. L. "Slim" Rasmussen (1909-1993) dies unexpectedly from leukemia. Franklin will serve in the Senate for 20 years with a broad track record of bipartisan success and be elected Senate President Pro Tempore by her peers in 2001 -- the first Black woman to serve with this distinction in the United States.
"Justice For All People"
A South Carolina native, Rosa Franklin served as a cadet nurse during World War II. Before her election, she worked for 42 years in a wide variety of healthcare settings as a registered nurse, administrator, and program director. She and her family arrived in Tacoma in the 1950s and she became an active member of the community, serving on municipal and local committees as well as various nursing associations. A lifelong learner, she earned her bachelor's degree in biology and English from the College (later University) of Puget Sound and her Masters in Social Science/Human Relations from Pacific Lutheran University, as well as certification from the Gynecorps training program at the University of Washington. Though Franklin's earlier runs for Tacoma City Council in the 1970s were unsuccessful, she continued to be active in local politics, and was selected as a delegate to two Democratic national conventions. At the urging of Pierce County Democratic officials and friends, Franklin decided to run for State Representative in 1990, hoping to replace longtime Democratic incumbent P. J. Gallagher. Her nomination and move to the senate was thus an unexpected one, but she agreed on the condition that she stay on the healthcare committee.
On the day of her swearing in to the senate, on January 26, 1993, Franklin was escorted to the rostrum by an honor court of senators Bob Oke (1940-2007) and Lorraine Wojahn (1920-2012). Justice Charles Z. Smith (1927-2016), himself a history maker as the first person of color to serve on the Washington State Supreme Court, administered the oath of office to the new senator, and then escorted Franklin to her new desk on the senate floor. Shortly thereafter, she presented her first senate floor resolution in honor of Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993), United States Supreme Court Justice, who had died on January 24, 1993.
Franklin’s first floor speech was characteristic of her tenor in office -- grounded and rooted in African American history, but also with an expansive view of justice and public service. "Thank you, Mr. President," she greeted the room. "It is indeed a great pleasure to be able to, as a first duty, to speak on this resolution for the late Justice Thurgood Marshall. Throughout my years in working with people I’ve followed the career of Justice Marshall. Justice Marshall was a person who really cared about people. He cared about justice, not only for African Americans, but justice for all people. He has had a stellar career. He has had an influence on my life -- on how I, too, am working for justice and equality for all people. That, we must have that with us, all of the time. He clearly demonstrated to us that we must care about all people. Justice Marshall has left a great legacy. He is not away. He is really looking upon us today and saying, 'Continue with justice for all.' Thank you" (Journal of the Senate, January 26, 1993).
Franklin was not the first African American to serve in the state Senate; that distinction belonged to John Henry Ryan (1865-1943), but she always remained conscious of her place in history. "I did not plan it this way," she told Seattle Times reporter Jill Leovy. "I was in the right place at the right time ... But I hope this will make me a model for other young women to see that it can be done. That's what our country and our state and what we are all about in this democracy — that every one of us be able to serve if we desire and that we should not be judged by color of skin, but our abilities to bring something to the group" ("Rosa Franklin to be First ...").
As senator, Franklin quickly rose to leadership positions within her caucus and then in the Senate overall. She was elected Senate President Pro Tempore in 2001 and again from 2005-2010. With a focus on education and healthcare, broadly defined, her signature pieces of legislation included the Affordable Housing Act (1993), the state's first environmental justice bill (SB6401, 1993), the shared coordination of a trauma-care center for Tacoma (1996), and the creation of the Governor's Interagency Council on Health Disparities (2004-2006).
Franklin received many awards and honors including an honorary doctorate from the University of Puget Sound, induction into the Washington State Nurses Association Hall of Fame, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Democratic Party of Washington, and the MLK Dream Award from the University of Washington Tacoma. Though Franklin retired from the Legislature in 2010 to spend more time with her grandchildren and family, she also celebrated the move as an opportunity to return to her community.