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From Slavery to Segregation to the Presidency

  • Siri Nyrop

For older African-Americans who experienced the dark era of racial segregation in America, the election of Barack Obama represents an achievement that many did not even dare dream of. VOA visited a church in Washington where parishioners are celebrating the end of a very long journey.

This church was founded by free blacks 160 years ago, when slavery was legal in the U.S. There was even a market nearby where blacks were sold as laborers.

The church is believed to have been a stop on a secret smuggling route called the "Underground Railroad," that helped slaves to freedom in America's north.

One hundred years after slavery was abolished, African-Americans were still struggling for equality. Sometime white resistance to integration was brutal. Blakcs were seperated from whites in all areas of life.

The ladies joining Pastor James Terrell's weekly Bible study group experiences those humiliating times.

Everybody has memories of being apart from the rest of society, even in the nation's capital.

"We couldn't eat downtown at the counters [in the restaurants]. I was with a group that sat in [protested] so that people could sit at the counters and eat at the Hecht Company, Woodies [local lunch places], and all those places," Sadie Dixon, parishioner recalls. "We could not eat. We also had separate theaters - we couldn't go to the same theaters when I came here."

"I have a dream," said Dr. Martin Luther King in 1963 in a speech to about a quarter million people -- including whites -- who came to Washington to demand racial equality.

But even for those who witnessed that speech, it seemed an impossible dream.

"I never had the idea that a black man would become president," Ozella Mitchell said."Never, never did I dream about it, didn't even talk about it, think about it, nothing. Because I knew it would never happen. It would never happen."

The election of the first black American as president of the U.S. fills the group with joy and pride. There is a shared sense of living an historic moment of a real change in the country.

"Not only in the larger society but especially within the African-American community. Because I don't think we'll ever be the same, [in other words,] everything will either be "before Mr. Obama" and after," Pastor James Terrell said.

For Elaine Nolton, Barack Obama represents a new message from America to the world.
"They're looking to see if we're going to live up to what we say we are," she said. "And this is the first time this has happened when we are saying, "This is America, the land of the free, where you can do whatever it is you want to do" - this is the first time!"

Pastor Terrell says that now the door is open for black people, and the sky is the limit.

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