|Captain Hard Times in Chicago restaurant has hosted many political gatherings|
For the residents of Chicago’s South Side, the predominantly African-American neighbourhood where Barack Obama began his political career, his victory was the culmination of hundreds of years of struggle.
At Captain Hard Times restaurant, popular among generations of diners in the South Side and the site of many a political gathering, locals met on Wednesday to chew over the results, reflecting its meaning for the community – and the nation – and to sample the traditional cooking.
The walls, lined with photos of local and national politicians, are testament to the area’s political weight in the city.
Its customers are often living history – many are originally from the nation’s south and remember segregation, when laws were passed permitting the separation of races, supposedly on a “separate but equal” level but which in reality engendered years of oppression.
But all feel that with the first president of colour due to enter office on January 20, a new era has been ushered in to the United States.
A visibly moved Max Turner, an 83-year-old preacher from the South Side, admitted to weeping when Obama’s victory was announced.
“It’s just that no-one in my generation dreamed that they would see an African-American president,” he explains.
“Growing up [here] when I did, there was de facto segregation, at my local school the [train] tracks were the dividing line between the blacks and the whites. It was rough.”
“Obama sees only people, not race, and I hope that will permeate our nation. He has such depth that it will rub off on a whole generation of people.”
Shepherd Heard Jr, a former police lieutenant who served the city for more than 30 years, was one of millions of African-Americans who travelled west and north to more urban areas – such as Chicago – from the US south.
They had sought to escape the increasingly oppressive segregation laws being imposed by southern states and looked for work in Chicago’s steel mills and warehouses in what is known as “The Great Migration”.
Heard says he remembers certain areas in the city at the time where “you were accepted but you weren’t really welcome”.
“I felt very strongly it was about time to recognise that Blacks, Latinos and other minorities have served this country well and its time for one of these minorities to serve as president,” he said.
“Now we have the right man at the right time and we need to honour him as we honour other presidents.”
The importance of Chicago’s South Side cannot be underestimated in Obama’s political trajectory.
Heard points out that there were “trailblazers” before Obama – most notably Jesse Jackson, the civil rights leader and former Democratic presidential candidate who worked in the city.
|Shepherd Heard says Jesse Jackson and others blazed the trail for Obama’s political ascent|
Jerald January, the senior pastor at the Vernon Park Church of God, who says his own grandfather had not been permitted to attend school beyond a certain age because he was African-American, has known Obama for several years and says the south side was the perfect place for Obama to hone his political skills.
“One of the things he was looking for when he came to the south side was a place to take what he knew and to make a difference,” January says.
“The south side – it has so much history and the strength and intelligence and the ability to strategise and do things here is incredible.
“For some here to live in the conditions they live under – only six miles from downtown Chicago – and for him not to get frustrated and flustered by that is impressive.”
‘A tremendous difference’
Perhaps most important for the residents of the south side is the impact the Obama victory will have on the area’s younger generations.
Pastor January points out Obama’s success will have further repercussions for the south side as an inspiration to the area’s teenagers and school children, who are all too often disproportionately affected by crime, unemployment and the financial crisis.
“A young lady at my church said that ‘for the first time I can see history as being tangible for me, everything I heard was about Dr King but I didn’t really see it, and now it’s part of my life,” he says.
January’s comments were echoed by Karen McCoo, a television producer who says she feels her nephews and a godson now have someone to emulate.
“They never had anything to strive for,” she says. “They never had a role model like him – it will make a tremendous difference in the way they think and feel now.
“They had no hope, and I believe this victory will change the consciousness of a lot of people. You can’t keep them down like that.”