In her 90 years, Mary Harrison has witnessed numerous historical moments in our nation. In her time, astronauts have landed on the moon and technology has continued to take us where no one has gone before. She’s seen firsthand the effects of segregation, the results of the civil rights movement and the election of this country’s first Black president — a point she considers quite monumental.
Harrison grew up on the south side of Indianapolis and due to the practices of the time, she and other Black youth attended the only high school in the city that would have them, Crispus Attucks. Harrison and her siblings didn’t grow up with a lot; her father was absent and her hard-working mother relied very heavily on public assistance to feed and clothe them all. “Our mother taught us that we needed to get out and work, to take of ourselves and be independent. She just taught us about life,” Harrison said.
Though she was unable to give them all the material trappings of a more luxurious life, Harrison’s mother instilled in them a desire to be civically engaged. When Harrison turned 18, her mother took her to their local precinct to cast her ballot.
“She made sure we voted. We always went with her to the polls, and of course when we went, it was mostly Blacks in our precinct,” she said. “My mother reminded us that certain people didn’t want (Blacks) there and at one point we didn’t have a right to (vote). When we got that right, it was important that we kept going. I’ve been voting ever since.”
After retiring from her post at Naval Avionics where she was employed for 26 years, Harrison looked for something to fill her free time. She joined a community group in her neighborhood and befriended a visually impaired woman named Nancy. Harrison, while acting as Nancy’s pseudo-chauffeur, began attending meetings with the Lawrence Township Democrats and in 1996, she started serving as a poll worker.
Michael Saahir, the committee person over Harrison’s precinct in Lawrence Township, said working with her has been an honor. He aligns her dedication with generational experience.
“If she can do it at her age, surely there are young people that can do it, too … I’m sure she has witnessed many of the prices paid by African-Americans and poor people to get to where we are now,” Saahir said. “Maybe that’s what motivates her — knowing the sacrifices that were made for us to be able to even walk in there and vote.
“It’s been quite inspiring, because she has that spunk. At her age, even now, she has that energy and the excitement. She loves working with people.” Saahir added that while Harrison brings lots of joy to the room, she brings food as well to keep everyone going on those long 12-hour days. “The one dish I remember the most is her chili; it was very good,” he reminisced.
For Harrison, her most memorable Election Day moment came the night Barack Obama was elected president.
“It was important to me, because he was a Black man and that was the first time (a Black man was elected president). I really got out to help him win his race. I walked some, but not too much because of my arthritis,” she said with a laugh. “I’ve had it all my life, but it didn’t start hurting me until I got in my 80s!”
In addition to canvassing, Harrison participated in a number of phone banking efforts. That morning in 2008 as she left her home to head to the polling site, Harrison said she knew Obama would win. She also knew that they’d have a large turnout.
“I knew we were going to be busy, and we were. We still had lines clean around the building after closing, and we had to get all those people in. We wanted to make sure we got the votes out,” she said, adding that this November will be her last election as a poll worker.
When asked what her predictions were for the presidential race, in a jovial yet cautious tone, she adamantly voiced her support in favor of the Democratic candidate.
“Clinton, definitely. Trump? Oh, Lord. We’re going to be in a world of trouble if Black folks don’t get out there and vote!”
The Indiana Election Division is looking for interested parties to serve as poll workers. Applicants must be at least 18 years of age and a registered voter and a resident of the county in which they wish to work. Opportunities for 16- and 17-year-olds are available through a program called Election Day Live. Depending on the county, workers can earn up to $150 for their service. For more information, contact your local party or the county election administrator.