On Election Day, 101-year-old Odath Baker’s daughter will take him to vote at his polling place at William D. Kelley School, which he can see from the window of his North Philadelphia home where he’s lived since 1945.
“You’re not going to stop him from voting,” said Baker’s grandson Appollos Baker. “One time, my aunt was late in taking him to vote and when she got there, he was up the street in his walker going to vote. He normally votes first thing in the morning.”
Baker said on Monday he couldn’t remember an election since the 1940s that he hasn’t voted in.
Last week, Baker met with U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans (D-Phila.) and the two made a video that is now posted on congressman’s Twitter account, in which Baker can be heard saying, “If I can vote at 102, why can’t you?” His birthday is Dec. 6, 1916.
“I want to thank Mr. Baker for continuing to vote and for using his voice to urge everyone else to vote,” said Evans in an emailed statement to the Tribune. “If voting didn’t matter, there wouldn’t be so many voter suppression efforts around the country. Voting equals power.”
Born in Lyons, Georgia, to a father who was a sharecropper and Baptist preacher, Baker couldn’t vote until he moved to Philadelphia and was in his 20s.
“They didn’t let colored folks vote in Georgia then,” Baker said. “As a Southern boy, you always saw what they were doing to colored people and it hurt. They would lynch you. If a colored man spoke to a white woman, he was going to be lynched and there was nothing you could do about it.”
For the centenarian, voting for the first time was “a big thing” and “exciting.” Although he can’t remember the first president he voted for, his daughter Serena Bellows believes it was Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“They used to be stricter than they are now, but since I first started voting I think we’ve gotten a little bit more independent,” he said. “Now, you don’t have people telling you go vote like they used to.”
Bellows, who is 54 and lives with her father, remembers politicians visiting homes, introducing themselves and encouraging people to get out and vote.
“People don’t do that anymore,” she said. “Back then, you knew who you were voting for.”
She’s happy her father got to see the election and presidency of Barack Obama.
“I asked (my father) if he ever thought he would see a Black president and he said he always hoped he would,” Bellows said. “When Hillary (Clinton) ran, he said, ‘You got a Black (president), you’re not going to get a woman, too.”
Bellows said she always remembers seeing her father, whom she describes as a “proud man,” going to the polls when she was a child.
“When I turned 18, back then, you could register to vote in high school,” Bellows recalls. “(My father) told me, ‘You’re going to vote.’ He told me he couldn’t vote until he was grown and the only way to have a voice, even though it may not seem like it, is to go vote.”
Appollos Baker credits Odath Baker and his maternal grandfather, William Lee Bentley, for instilling in him the importance of voting.
“They joined the same church and became a political force,” said Appollos Baker, who works for the American Federation of Government Employees. “It’s both sides of my family. Our family crest is that we’re in the helping business.”
Leaving Georgia for Philadelphia
Baker was one of 12 children, one of his siblings was a stillbirth. He is the youngest son still living and his youngest sister, who is 96, is alive and lives in Georgia. Their mother died when Baker was 6.
Baker never completed high school, but managed to make a living as a shoemaker earning $19 a week in 1942, which Baker says was pretty good money back then.
“The most educated Negros that you had was from the South and were educated in the South,” Baker said reflecting on his education. “They had no other place to go but to the Black colleges.”
Baker married his wife on his 21st birthday and they had three children — two boys and a girl. He’s a grandfather to three and a great-grandfather to six. His wife died in the late 1980s.
The family moved to North Bailey Street in 1945. At that time, Baker said, he was the only African-American homeowner on the block. Now the neighborhood is Black, but gentrification is coming, Bellows said.
Baker worked for Campbell’s for four decades, and as a crossing guard for 10 years. He also served as a committeeman for five years.
Baker turns 102 next month. For the most part, he’s healthy; he only recently was diagnosed with high blood pressure at age 99.
When asked what his secret to longevity is, Baker said, “No drinking, no smoking and don’t mess with married women.”