Tuesday morning, my alarm clock went off at 5 AM. The sky was still dark as the sun would not rise for another two hours. I made myself a coffee and an english muffin, then walked through my eerily quiet neighborhood at 5:45.
My neighborhood is called Columbia Heights. It is one of the new, “hot”, neighborhoods in DC. A space that was once known as a really “dangerous part of town.” But recently, it has seen an influx of young, white professionals. Columbia Heights was not always that way. In the 1950’s and ’60’s it was a thriving middle class Black community. But after the riots of 1968 and the recession of the ’70’s, Columbia Heights fell apart. The main shopping area for DC’s Black community burnt down during the civil unrest and many of the middle class residents moved out.
But many stayed as well, raising their children and being active members of the community.
When the polls opened at 7 AM, the line out the door was wrapping around the block. For two solid hours, a constant stream of people came to my table to receive their ballots. There was a good mix of voters. Young professionals, older residents, recent immigrants all lined up to vote. But promptly at 10, the young, white professionals disappeared. Elder members of the Black Community exclusively came to cast their votes. Retired women and men in their 70s, 80s and 90s came in and voted through out the mid-day.
All greeted me with smiles. One older woman told me about how the elementary school gym we were in (now closed and being prepared for condos) was her elementary school in the 40s. An elderly man told me about how he lives in the same house he bought with funds from the GI Bill after WWII. Another woman told me about how sad she was since her husband died a month earlier.
But most of all, all of these residents, my neighbors, seemed proud. These were folks who lived through a segregated DC under Jim Crow Laws. These were people who witnessed Dr. King’s march on Washington and his death. They also survived the riots immediately following. They saw the establishment of DC Home Rule. And now, they were able to vote for the man who would become the nation’s first black Presidential. The energy and excitement were palpable. People hugged each other and laughed. Many older men shook my hand firmly and thanked me.
As the day progressed, and the sun began to set, young people replaced the Elders again. Some were professionals, others were students at nearby Howard University. Many of the young voters were voting for the first time. Every time I saw a blank or confused face, I took the time to explain to them how to cast their vote correctly. I slowly went over the ballot and how one fills it out.
Finally, as the sky darkened and the crowd thinned out to a trickle, a young black man in his late twenties showed up with his four year old daughter. He took the ballot and thanked me. I asked his daughter if she would help her dad vote. She shyly said, “No.” But her dad looked at me and said, “Oh, she will.”
He took her over to the booth and quickly scanned the ballot, voting for all the local offices. I noticed he had not filled in the bubble for President. He then bent down. He grabbed his daughter’s hand and gave the pencil to her. Very carefully, he held her hand and they connected the arrow together. They then walked her over to the ballot box and they fed the paper in together. They both received a little “I Voted” sticker and walked out the door as he whispered something in her ear. She nodded.
I am not sure who they voted for together. But I have a pretty good guess. And typing this makes me choke up just as it did ten minutes before the polls closed Tuesday night.
And that is why I work the polls. I work the polls to honor our elders who worked so hard to make this country free. I work the polls to make sure everyone feels confident that their vote was cast correctly. And I work the polls so that our future is protected.