Black community finds inspiration in Obama win

Wednesday, November 5, 2008 | 10:15 a.m. CST; updated 12:30 p.m. CST, Thursday, November 6, 2008
Gary Lewis, left, 17, RJ Hester, 17, and Patricia Hughley, 17, joke around in Douglass Park on Wednesday, Nov. 6, before heading to class at Douglass High School. The students are excited about Obama's victory on Tuesday. They think a black President will help ease racial tensions in the United States.

Before Tuesday night’s historic presidential election, Desirae Pennington said she wasn’t seriously considering college. But after watching Barack Obama win the presidency, a new idea has occurred to her.

"I might want to go now," Pennington, 17, said.


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Pennington sat at a picnic table with her friend Decoya Rendell, 16, in a corner of Douglass Park on Tuesday morning. Both attend Douglass High School, Columbia’s former all-black school before racial segregation ended nearly 55 years ago.

Their eyes welled with tears watching Obama win.

"I feel like I can do anything now," said Rendell, smiling.

Pennington, Rendell and many others in the black community celebrated the election of the first black U.S. president on Wednesday.  About 95 percent of black people voted for Obama, according to exit polls. The historic election brought to their minds the possibility of personal and societal changes. 

Some hope for better race relations, and others smile just thinking about what it means for their children's future that a black man has become leader of the United States.

They all agree that change is on its way.

Debra Harris, 47, co-owner of A Cut Above the Rest hair salon and barber shop on Providence Road, thinks Obama understands the struggles associated with race and can better help everyone.

"It's not like we expect him to go to the White House and give us favoritism,” Harris said in her shop, where an Obama poster hangs above a barber's chair. “He understands our struggle and that equalizes everything for all people."

Obama has energized the youth, even Mary Warren's already active third-grader Rayshaun Warren. Chatting outside of her house on East Sexton Road, Warren, 43, said her son thinks Obama is "cool."

"He said, 'Just think. I could do that one day,'" she said.

At A Touch of Elegance barber shop on Austin Avenue, customer Dennis Brownlee, 25, said he thought an Obama presidency would help everyone understand each other better.

“I can’t wait to see what happens,” he said. “It’s just a better day.”

The election also means no one can ever tell his two kids they can’t achieve their dreams, he said: “Everybody’s got a better shot at life.”

Manuel Douglas, 57, who was out having lunch at J.R. Barton's BBQ restaurant on McBaine Avenue on Wednesday, went to school in Columbia during the Civil Rights movement. He said Obama's win makes him proud, but his happiness is tinged with skepticism.

"No president can do anything more than the Congress wants him to," he said.

William “Gene” Robertson, a MU emeritus professor, said that's why Americans, Congress included, need to come together and engage in a mutual assumption of power with Obama.

“We have to be astute and active followers just as much as he has to be a leader,” Robertson said. “We can’t just leave it in one person’s hands."

Mary Ratliff, president of the Columbia chapter of the NAACP, said she doesn't expect Obama to magically erase racial divides but that his presidency is an opportunity to begin healing old wounds.

"I think he galvanized the country: black, white, rich, poor," she said. "We're all in this together, and that's the kind of inspiration he brings to the people."

Missourian reporters Sananda Sahoo and Sarah Scully contributed to this story.

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