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‘Yes we did!’ A historic night in Harlem

America’s first black cultural capital rejoiced Tuesday night as Barack Obama pulled off an electoral landslide in a historic race. Emotions ran high as locals, visitors and immigrants echoed each other’s cries of “It’s Obama’s time” while they flooded the streets of Harlem.
/ Source: TODAY staff

More than 1,000 people watching the election results on a JumboTron in Harlem cheered wildly and spilled into the streets as the announcement came that Barack Obama had been elected America's 44th president.

Several people in the multiracial crowd broke down in tears, unable to contain their emotions.

“This means so much,” Tamika Wallace, 24, said through sobs after calling her mother to share her joy. “This is such a historic day, and to be here with everyone to see a black president get elected — I don’t have words to explain how it feels.”

Little could be heard above the soundtrack created by cars up and down 125th Street, Harlem’s main thoroughfare, as horns honked in celebration, drummers beat African rhythms and people chanted, “Yes we can!”

The election was celebrated throughout Harlem, America’s first black cultural center. At bars and restaurants and even hole-in-the-wall shops, people gathered to watch TVs as election results rolled in. Eventually, many joined the party in the street.

Some onlookers — both white and black — climbed on top of phone booths and parked cars, throwing their fists in the air, while others waved American flags, Obama posters and campaign signs. Soul classic “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” blasted over speakers as young and old broke into dance and sang along.

As chants of “Yes we can” led to those of “Yes we did,” Oliver Townsend, 29, danced along with an exuberant, emotional crowd. “This is the after party,” he said.

Making history
It’s been 40 years since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., to whom Obama has been compared. Now Obama is the first black president, chosen by an electoral landslide after raising more money than any other candidate in history. His victory comes after many voters, particularly in Harlem, which is 67 percent black, held high hopes and were wrought with anxiety over what would happen on Election Day.

“This is a country founded on slavery, and to now have a president who is a person of color says a lot,” said Keith Mayes, associate professor of African American Studies at the University of Minnesota. “As a historian, I can’t stop reveling in this victory.”

Many see Obama’s win as a milestone in the civil rights movement, particularly because of his ability to mobilize people across racial, class and generational lines.

“What I think is really wonderful is how Obama’s managed to get a lot of young people involved. It really was a campaign of inclusiveness,” said Ilyasah Shabazz, 45, daughter of activist Malcolm X. “Especially to see our seniors in lines that wrap around blocks. It just goes to show [that] a man of great integrity, compassion who inspires and motivates [can] win.”

Tearelle Cole was among the 300 or so people who attended a prayer service in support of Obama at Harlem’s First Corinthian Baptist Church on election night.

The mother of a teen, Cole, 36, said Obama’s presidency marks a new era, one that promises a better future for her children. “The glass ceiling has been broken,” she said. “Proud is not a strong enough word.”

An international impact
Jane Cooper, 48, a white Canadian who was visiting Harlem for one day just to soak in the Election Day atmosphere, said this presidential race was important for the future of the international community.

“We are all tied economically and politically, and whoever is president has to understand that,” she said. “From a Canadian perspective, color is not an issue. Obama has a far better understanding of foreign policy.”

It was Obama’s approach to foreign policy that moved 52-year-old Yaalengi Ngemi to volunteer for the Harlem for Obama campaign. Working out of the campaign’s frenzied office on Election Day, he said that he was ready for a change to the way America is perceived internationally.

“People in Africa, Europe are looking to Obama,” said Ngemi, a Congolese immigrant who has lived in the U.S. since 1976 and became a citizen in 1992. “I believe Obama will be the kind of president to redirect the world from being divided, the way Bush has left it. Obama has the judgment to know that countries have to work together.”

Amadu B. Barrie was sitting in a small convenience store, crammed with about two dozen other immigrants from Africa, when he heard the news of Obama’s win. Although Barrie and most of the others were unable to vote because they are not citizens, their eyes were glued to the results coming in on the small television.

“We are Americans today,” Barrie said with pride. “We all here, we all Americans. We are not multi-cultures.”

Barrie, who drives a cab, moved to Harlem from Sierra Leone in 2000, and hopes to vote in 2012.

“Now we are moving forward,” he said.

Bridging the divide
As Harlemites seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief, some still wondered how the new president will change their day-to-day lives.

“There will be a groundswell of sentiment, everyone will feel pride,” said Christopher Service, 32. “Then eventually, it fades. We go back to wondering if we'll have jobs, why the economy is still sucking.”

Now that the campaign of nearly two years is over, Obama will be charged with bridging the gap between voters, and living up to his rhetoric about change. But on the night of Obama’s win, revelers, who passed each other on the street with raised fists shouting, “No more Bush, it’s Obama’s time,” were immersed in the joy of victory and thoughtful about what the moment meant.

Latrell Roach, 37, remembered a commercial he had seen about 15 years ago in which children were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. None of them, he recalled, said they aspired to be president of the United States.

“Now a little African-American kid can say he wants to be president of the United States,” said Roach, who has a 9-year-old son. “This is history in the making.”

Jen Brown, Sarika Dani and Rina Raphael contributed to this report.