At 114, a daughter of former slaves votes for Obama

Gertrude Baines is the world's oldest person of African descent. She cast her ballot at a convalescent facility near USC.

Gertrude Baines' 114-year-old fingers wrapped lightly over the ballpoint pen as she bubbled in No. 18 on her ballot Tuesday. Her mouth curled up in a smile. A laugh escaped. The deed was done.

A daughter of former slaves, Baines had just voted for a black man to be president of the United States. "What's his name? I can't say it," she said shyly afterward. Those who helped her fill out the absentee ballot at a convalescent facility west of USC chimed in: "Barack Obama."

Baines is the world's oldest person of African descent, according to the Gerontology Research Group, which validates claims of extreme old age. She is the third-oldest person in the world, and the second-oldest in the United States after Edna Parker of Indiana, who is 115.

When Baines was born, Grover Cleveland was president and the U.S. flag had 44 stars. She grew up in Georgia during a time when black people were prevented from voting, discriminated against and subject to violent racism. In her lifetime, she has seen women gain the right to vote, and drastic changes to federal voting laws and to the Constitution -- and now, this.

"No, I didn't never think I'd live this long." she said.

The walls of Baines' room on the second floor of Western Convalescent Hospital are covered with birthday cards from presidents and officials from years gone by.

A picture of George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, is framed on the wall. Above it is a signed picture of Obama and City Councilman Bernard Parks, now running for a seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. On Baines' bed sit two teddy bears, one with an Obama pin on its right arm.

"Why am I voting for him? Because he's for the colored," Baines said, her language itself hearkening to a different time. "Sure it's good. That's the first one I know to be in there. Everybody's glad for colored men to be in there sometime."

On Tuesday, Baines sat in her wheelchair, a fuzzy red scarf around her neck, a red bonnet on her head and black slippers on her feet. She is hard of hearing and her memory comes and goes. She tends to refer to historical milestones by who was president at the time.

Aside from chronic arthritis, she is relatively healthy, mobile and attends church every Sunday in the hospital's dining room. That's where her pastor first told her a black man was running for president.

"It struck me," Baines said. "It struck a lot of people when they heard about a colored person" running. Baines looked over at her favorite assistant nurse, Cynthia Thompson. "What's that boy's name?"

"Jesse Jackson?" Thompson said.

"Yeah," Baines said with a laugh. "He tried, but he didn't make it."

"Why they want to keep having white? Why not let a colored person in some time?" Baines said. "I'm glad, I'm glad, I'm glad to get a colored man in there, and so many people are. I hope nothing don't happen to him."

This is only the second time Baines has voted. The last was for John F. Kennedy.

"And you see how they killed him. I was in Memphis, Tennessee, at that time, during the parade. Who was the next president they shot? Two of the boys . . ." she said, trailing off.

A registered Democrat, Baines said she was going to ask the hospital to remove Bush's picture from her wall. "They put him up there," she said disdainfully, waving her hand.

"We are all the same, skin dark, white, that's all," Baines said. She said Obama would be good for everybody. "Republicans don't care for the poor people," she said. "They want it all and they don't want the Democrats to have nothing."

Baines gets most of her election information from chats with hospital workers and friends. Her eyesight is poor, and it is not always easy for her to watch television.

On April 6, she will turn 115. Baines has been at the hospital for about nine years, and has outlived everyone in her family, including her daughter -- who died of typhoid at 18 -- and two nieces.

Baines said she spends much of her time sleeping and eating, but enjoys getting out in her wheelchair for a ride now and then, eating extra crispy bacon for breakfast, and watching "Jerry Springer" from time to time.

As lunch rolled around, Thompson wheeled Baines around to face the television as it cast images of Obama striding by to vote. Tonight, Baines probably will be asleep when the results are announced, but she had her own hopeful prediction.

"Everybody says they think he's going to get it," she said. "And I hope he do. Maybe things will get better."

Abdollah is a Times staff writer

tami.abdollah@latimes.com

 
 
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