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Tacoma icon Rosa Franklin has spent a lifetime helping others both as a nurse and as a state legislator.

Good stories are at a premium nowadays. The headlines are bleak. COVID-19 has brought with it suffering, pain and destruction on a massive scale. The pandemic comes at a time when our national discourse is, to put it mildly, heated. Maybe it’s an illusion to think politicians from opposing parties ever got along but the veil of bipartisanship has been removed to reveal the raw nerve underneath.

There really isn’t a comparable moment like this in recent history. In terms of uncertainty perhaps the Great Depression comes closest. Rosa Franklin grew up during the depression. Born in South Carolina, Franklin was the youngest of 12 children. Franklin’s parents sent their youngest to live with an aunt and uncle in order to provide her with more opportunity.

Franklin thrived in her new environment. After graduating high school, she attended Good Samaritan Waverly Hospital School of Nursing in South Carolina.

Franklin and her husband James first moved to Tacoma in the 1950s. James served in the Army and so the couple moved overseas briefly before returning to the area a few years later to settle. Once settled here, the Franklins raised a family. Rosa continued her nursing career and would stay in the field for more than 40 years.

Maybe it was the era she grew up in or maybe it’s the fact that she was the youngest of 12 children, but Franklin is committed to helping others. Lending a hand and finding ways to work together are foundational to Franklin’s worldview. She took this philosophy into her second career with the Washington State Legislature.

Franklin served the 29th Legislative District in the Tacoma area for 20 years, first in the state House of Representatives and later in the State Senate. She was the first black woman elected to the Washington State Senate.

While serving in the legislature, Franklin was a persistent advocate for nursing education, supporting the establishment of what is now UW Tacoma's School of Nursing & Healthcare Leadership, which recently celebrated it's ranking by U.S. News as the #2 public master's-level nursing program in the country, shared with UW Bothell and the UW in Seattle.

Franklin and local historian Tamiko Nimura recently teamed up on a new book, an oral history called: Rosa Franklin — A Life in Health Care, Public Service, and Social JusticeThe pair sat down with UW Tacoma part-time lecturer and local history maven Kim Davenport for Paw’d Defiance, the UW Tacoma podcast. The three discuss Franklin's life growing up with her aunt and uncle in South Carolina as well as her career in nursing. They talk about the housing discrimination Franklin faced when she first moved to Tacoma. Finally, Franklin talks about what she thinks is missing in today's politics and what can be done to fix the system.

Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / April 2, 2020
Photos by: 
Photo illustration by Megan Kitagawa
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or