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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: June 5, 2008
Byline: Jeff Gammage, Kia Gregory and Ashwin P. Verghese

Obama's achievement heartens African Americans

Milton Burno stood steps from the former site of the President's House, where George Washington kept his slaves, and within sight of Independence Hall, where founders adopted the words "All men are created equal," a promise long unkept.

The day after Sen. Barack Obama made history by clinching the Democratic nomination, Burno, 62, struggled to take it in: a black man is running for president on a major-party ticket. He might even win.

"I'm...," Burno began, then paused, searching for the word. "Happy," he concluded, a broad smile creasing his gray-whiskered cheeks. "America has lived up to its truths."

Burno, a Marine Corps veteran, a retired postal worker, a man who loves his country, stood on the gray slate tiles of Independence Mall, where the nation was founded and a site of its original sin, slavery.

The Atlantic County resident joined African Americans across the region who yesterday reacted to Obama's victory with delight, pride, relief, fear for his safety — and some skepticism that the country would ever elect a black man its leader.

For months, they had seen this moment coming. When it finally arrived, there seemed to be more excitement about the 46-year-old Illinois senator's promise — to instill hope and bring change — than the simple fact of his nomination.

In Center City, Sharon Wallace Vick, 52, approached a sidewalk salesman hawking faux designer purses, umbrellas, scented oils — and Obama T-shirts. After 17 years as a clerk-typist, the single mother from North Philadelphia explained, she is suddenly unemployed and struggling to find work.

"That's why I'm buying this shirt, to build my confidence that change is coming," Vick said, fingering a red T-shirt emblazoned with the words "Yes We Can."

"Obama's going to get his job, and I'm going to get one, too," she said.

What compares in the pantheon of American firsts? The transcontinental flight? The moon landing? The invention of the telephone or the Internet?

Or is Obama's achievement, after his grueling battle with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, more appropriately measured in the context of African American firsts? Thurgood Marshall's joining the Supreme Court in 1967, Douglas Wilder's being elected governor of Virginia in 1989, Colin Powell's being appointed secretary of state in 2000?

"I can recall, growing up, everyone saying, 'Anyone can become president,' " said Ernest Jones, chairman of the board at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, who is in his mid-60s. "Until this time, there was no evidence of that. Now it's here."

Obama claimed victory Tuesday night, though Clinton has not conceded the nomination. The Democratic National Convention in August is a mere formality.

Speaking to supporters in Minnesota, the son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya barely noted his "first" status, mentioning only a "historic journey." That trek required the defeat of another history-making candidate, who now seems to want the vice presidential slot.

"I think Hillary would be the best choice," said Raymond Clark, 56, eating lunch near 15th and Market Streets yesterday. "She's got clout."

Others African Americans surveyed yesterday said they didn't want her on the ticket. One person accused her of "lies," another of having an "attitude problem."

At the Oak Lane Diner, the Rev. Timothy Jones, 62, looked up from his eggs and recalled taking part in civil-rights-era sit-ins in his hometown of Tifton, Ga. To have suffered under segregation, and now see a black man nominated for president — well, the young people who cheer Obama may not fully understand.

"I don't know if they can appreciate it like I do," said Jones, pastor of Ebenezer Full Gospel Church in Wynnefield. "The hope that whatever we set our mind to do, whatever goals we have, they are attainable."

That could include the presidency.

"It's inevitable that there will be some mudslinging," Jones said, "but our country is ready for change. Is it a black president?"

He shrugged and, after a long pause, offered a simple declaration:

"Yes."

At the Friendship III Barber Shop in Lawnside, the political views of the proprietors show in the front window: two blue Obama signs.

Lisa Bryant, 47, an Obama badge pinned to her barber's smock, said it was great that her candidate had secured the nomination, but that now he had to win and deliver on his promises.

"What's going to change right here, where we are?" she asked.

The Camden County town has a unique history as the first self-governing, independent black community north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Near Bryant stood her father, Percy Bryant Sr., who opened the shop in 1959. He clipped the hair of Gilbert Toomer, 64, who said he was worried the nomination could make Obama the target of violence.

"It's wonderful on the one hand, scary on the other," Toomer said. "Back in my time, there were a lot of assassinations. . . . We still have cruel people in our world."

Helping to fill the shop was Phil Bogle, a 6-foot-3, 322-pound offensive lineman for the Philadelphia Soul football team. The significance of Obama's win isn't lost on young African Americans, said Bogle, 28.

"The only avenue we saw [growing up] was sports, or becoming a fireman or maybe a police officer," he said. "When you were in school and they had the banner of the presidents, you look up as a child and say, 'There's no black people.' "

At Independence Mall, tour buses rolled across the wet pavement, and children hopscotched around puddles and through the misty rain. Near the buried slave quarters of what Washington called "the best single house in the city," Isis Pickens paused.

It's not just that a black man has won the Democratic nomination, she clarified. It's that Obama is special.

"It feels good to have him," said Pickens, 29, of Brooklyn, N.Y. Not an icon of protest or black nationalism, but "a guy who represents what African Americans are really about."

"He's our mirror to America, who we really are. We're hardworking, we're educated, we're American."

 

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