What inauguration means
As blacks who lived through segregation, with disturbing memories from the time seared into their consciousness, Carrie Pendergrass, Leroy Moore and James Barnes find it hard to believe they have lived to see someone with their skin color twice elected president of the United States.
Here are just some of the reasons why.
For Pendergrass, it was going to stores in the South as a child and teenager, then having whites tell her, “Nigger, get out the way,” or, “Step back, nigger.” She couldn’t object, knowing that if she said anything in response, she risked being beaten and thrown out of the store. Or worse, arrested by a segregated white police force and thrown in jail.
For Moore, it was briefly going to jail because of his skin color as a young man. A white woman accused him falsely of saying something objectionable to her in public. The authorities in his South Carolina hometown arrested him. Only by paying a fine and not protesting further did Moore avoid a worse fate at the hand of authorities bent on keeping blacks in their place.
For Barnes, it was growing up in a rural North Carolina community in the southern part of the state knowing that there were certain places he couldn’t go, certain people with whom he didn’t associate. Barnes enjoyed his youth in the 1950s, but acknowledges he was restricted, that his personal experiences could only reach so far because of segregation.
As President Barack Obama prepares to take the oath of office at the Capitol for the second time today, perhaps no set of Americans appreciates the change in the country more than older black men and women. For them, the absurdities and insults of segregation aren’t just words in a history book or scenes from a documentary. It’s the weaved fabric of their existence, one that makes them marvel at America electing, then re-electing, a black man to its most powerful and notable office.
Pendergrass, Moore and Barnes — now High Pointers who live in Astor Dowdy Towers downtown — say that the couldn’t have envisioned in their youth that a black man would occupy the White House.
“It was just the way things were then,” said Pendergrass, an 82-year-old retired furniture worker. “I just didn’t ever think it would change.”
Barnes said that as American society advanced, with blacks finally receiving basic rights and opportunities, he hoped to live to see the moment that Obama has brought to pass.
“When God gets in the mix, you can’t stop that,” said Barnes, a 78-year-old retired truck driver.
Moore said that, in many ways, it’s more important that the country re-elected the president Nov. 6 than first elected him in 2008.
“The whole country had to see a change. I think it’s wonderful,” said Moore, a 69-year-old retired chemical factory worker.
In their youth, all three say that being called racial slurs by whites was common, sometimes daily, drudgery.
Pendergrass, who grew up in a town in South Carolina, recalls that even something as playful as going to an ice cream parlor as a girl didn’t remove her from reminders of racism. She and her black friends had to stand in the back, use a separate, segregated entrance.
“We could never be served in the front,” she said.
Despite everything they endured during segregation, or perhaps because of it, Pendergrass, Moore and Barnes say that they love their country and take intense pride in saying they are Americans. They have lived to see a shift in America that none of them could imagine when they were growing up.
“To me, it’s the best, a strong country,” Pendergrass said. “There’s not another one like it.”
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