Rosa Walker is the granddaughter of a slave who endured racism in the segregated South. She remembers the heartbreak over such tragedies as the 1963 killing of four girls in an Alabama church bombing. In the midst of the nation’s civil-rights struggles, she and her husband decided there was one way to help drive change: They would vote in every election.
Sixty years later, Rosa Walker, 94, has kept that pledge, never missing a vote. About 10 years ago, after her 50th year of consecutive voting, she and her husband, World War II veteran William M. Walker, were inducted into the Pennsylvania Voter Hall of Fame.
Today, the Homeland Center resident remembers that decision, made in the era when African-Americans were struggling to end segregation and secure equal rights.
“There was all the upheaval in the country, and people were dying for it,” she says from her room at Homeland. “My husband and I decided that if they could die for it, the least we could do was vote. We made that commitment to each other, and we kept it.”
Walker grew up in the South Carolina home of her grandparents. Her grandmother, Lavinia White, was born a slave. The family were sharecroppers on a cotton farm.
“They were one step away from slavery,” she says. “It was a horrible life. It was the saddest life because of the conditions you lived under. We walked to school for miles. We didn’t have proper food. We did the best we could on the farm because there was no light, no gas. Everything was outside. You had a pump, and that was your water. You had a fireplace, and that was your heat.”
Seeking a better way of life, she went to live with loving relatives in Washington, DC. She worked as a maid in an upscale apartment complex, where she met her husband, who was also working there. He served as a first sergeant in the U.S. Army in Europe during World War II and was on his way to the Pacific, readying for a possible invasion of Japan, when the war ended.
In 1950, the couple moved to Harrisburg. Though they encountered segregation in the North, too, they eventually purchased a home in Uptown Harrisburg, near Homeland, and raised two daughters. “My husband and I worked night and day to find a better life for our kids,” she says.
Walker remembers all the U.S. presidents during her lifetime. Jimmy Carter and Harry Truman were “true men” and “good people,” she says. “The rest of them had their problems, all of them, including Roosevelt.”
Voters have the power to remove even rich people from their elected posts. “I can’t take your money, but I can take you out of that seat,” Walker says.
William Walker died in 2006 and is buried at Indiantown Gap National Cemetery. Since Rosa Walker moved to Homeland, her daughter has taken her to vote at the Neighborhood Center on Third Street.
“Right now, I’m still voting,” she says. “If I’m alive, I vote. Even though I’m incapacitated, I’m still going.”