* The Auxiliary of The Atlas Senior Center / The Department of Family Support Services


January 20, 2009, 2:49 pm

Moist Eyes in Chicago’s South Side

Douglas Belkin reports on the inauguration from Chicago.

At the Atlas Center, a senior center on Chicago’s South side, about 75 mostly African-American seniors watched the inauguration on a wide-screen television set with snow falling outside and a lot of moist eyes inside.

As the ceremony began, when either God or Obama was mentioned several seniors shouted “Amen!” at the television. When Rick Warren gave the invocation dozens said with him in unison “for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever, amen.”


Photo Courtesy of Landov

Brenda Clay watches at Valois Cafeteria in Chicago as Barack Obama is sworn in. Mr. Obama has been a regular customer at the restaurant for years.

People remained seated when Mr. Biden took the vice-presidential oath, but the entire room rose to their feet when Mr. Obama stood.

Many, like Katterine Tyler, had tears in their eyes as Mr. Obama took the pledge.

“I didn’t ever think I’d see something like this,” she said. “But then this year I had a vision and I knew, I knew after he announced that he was running that he would win and now look at him!”

Jewel Boganey, a 72-year-old retired high-school librarian, compared the moment to the Soviet launch of Sputnik.

“We thought going to space was impossible,” she said. “Well, we thought we would never see a black man become president.”

After the inauguration, the DJ played a gospel song with the refrain “I’m not tired yet.” People finished their barbecue chicken and chocolate cake and began dancing. Ms. Boganey, who as a girl attended a segregated two-room school house in the town of Coffeeville, Kan., said the message she hoped Mr. Obama would impart to children was that their dreams too could be fulfilled.

“He won because he was able to present a dream for people,” she said. “Well, he’s on the mountaintop now, his dream is fulfilled and he’s showing people there’s enough oxygen on the world for everyone.”

Wearing five Obama buttons, a baseball hat with Obama spelled out in sequins, and a wristwatch with Mr. Obama’s smiling face on it, Helen Plicque, 76, said this was the best day of her life. “I’m excited, I’m excited, I’m excited!” she said.

Earlier in the day she called her girlfriend while she watched the television coverage before the swearing in.

“We cried and cried and I said, ‘Can you believe what you’re looking at, girl?’” Her eyes again moist after the swearing in, she said “I’ll never forget this day; this is like my birthday and Christmas all rolled up into one.”

She didn’t stay for lunch.

“I’m going to a party at Mr. G’s Restaruant,” she said. “I’m going to party all night!”

Charlie Carpenter, a 70-year-old retired carpenter who watched the inauguration at the Atlas Senior Center on Chicago’s Southside, said he was stunned at Mr. Obama’s victory. Mr. Carpenter grew up in the countryside in Mississippi and came to Chicago as a young man.

“I saw so many things in my life, but I didn’t ever think I’d see a black president,” he said. “I was married in ‘58 and we were called all kinds of names, nasty names; there were no motels, no washrooms, some restaurants you had to go use the woods…and then things started to change.”

Mr. Carpenter said he thought about five years ago a black president was a possibility when he noticed the amount of racism was declining. Then, on Election day, when he saw so many young people waiting in lines at the polls he began to really consider that Mr. Obama could win.

“I was in line, I had to wait about 45 minutes, and one woman started complaining and a young man said be patient, be patient, and when I heard that, and I thought, ‘well maybe.’”

Kareem Muhammad, a 68-year-old retired taxi driver, said the inauguration “touched me deeply.”

Mr. Muhammad grew up in Knoxville, Tenn., and remembers when the city was integrated. Back then, a black president seemed impossible.

How will he take Mr. Obama’s request to heart to make the country a better place?

“I’ll talk to my kids,” said Mr. Muhammad, who is the father of eight. “I’ll explain to them what we’re up against and tell them to stay within the law.”

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