Livingstone students among those in Rowan reveling in inauguration fanfare

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Mark Wineka
As Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. prepared to administer the presidential oath of office to Barack Obama, Livingstone College students and faculty who were watching the ceremony in Varick Auditorium rose to their feet as one.
Thirty-five words later, Obama was president.
The several hundred people in the auditorium responded with applause, yells and whistles.
Arms were outstretched, as if welcoming a long-lost relative.
There were tears and hugs, even a high-five or two.
The crowd then settled in to hear Obama’s inauguration speech, but about a minute into his historic address, the projected television image on stage disappeared, the victim of a technical glitch that would not be solved until the speech was over.
It didn’t matter. A new day in U.S. history had dawned, and the audience members at Livingstone, a traditionally black college, felt as though they were a part of it more than ever before.
Porsha Arrington waited out the morning in a “First Family” T-shirt that her grandmother had sent her from Washington, D.C., Arrington’s hometown.
“It’s really important for African-Americans,” Arrington said of the Obama presidency. “He’s a great person and was a really great candidate for the job. I’m just proud today.”
Most of the students and staff interviewed before the swearing-in Tuesday morning said they’ll actually remember the day Obama was elected more than the inauguration. Arrington heard Obama’s being declared the election night winner in her dormitory room.
“I don’t think I’ll ever forget that,” said the junior criminal justice major.
Rashida Elbourne, a freshman from Virginia, said the importance of inauguration day shouldn’t be overlooked.
“Because it’s the first day of change,” she said. “This is the change actually coming.”
But she agreed that for her election day was more emotional and memorable, “when the community came together and voted,” she said.
Another freshman, Jason Kutzer of Charlotte, said Obama’s becoming president tells all other Americans they can do whatever they set their minds to do, regardless of race or circumstances.
“It opens your eyes to see the bigger picture,” he said.
Most of the students mentioned the immediate challenges facing Obama: United States’ involvement in two wars and an economic crisis in which people are losing their jobs and homes.
“We have gone through a tough eight years,” said Patrice Evans, a sophomore from New York city. “This has been rough for everyone. A lot of changes are necessary because he (former President Bush) has put our country in severe debt.”
As the Livingstone audience watched the inauguration proceedings and introductions leading up to the swearing-in ceremony, the appearances of both President Bushes drew hardly a response ó good or bad.
But the crowd reacted favorably to Bill and Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama and the Obama children, performer Aretha Franklin, Vice President Joe Biden and, of course, Obama.
“He’s an inspiration to people,” freshman Eboni Veney said, explaining that Obama’s election meant more than his being the first black president. “He can relate to everybody.”
Obama gives the country a chance to start over, and his pending presidency had inspired a new sense of patriotism among many young black Americans, Veney said.
“I can honestly say I never felt like that before,” she added.
Obama already has succeeded in bringing the country together, Veney said, as she watched television cameras sweep over the sea of millions who traveled to Washington for the inauguration.
If he did absolutely nothing in the next four years, she said, at least Obama brought joy and peace to the country and gave it hope.
Veney said she cried Sunday when she saw Obama walking down the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Chiquita Richardson, a junior from Washington, voted for president for the first time in 2008. She participated in the marches from the Livingstone campus to the downtown Rowan County Elections Office to vote in the primary and to vote early in the general election.
“I got to do great things the first time around,” Richardson said. “… It makes you want to dream high. This makes you want to become more than you’re striving to be.”
The inauguration helped to make the election night euphoria sink in, she added
“It’s like it’s really happening now,” said Richardson. “It’s real.”
Many of the Livingstone faculty members sat to the side near the front of the auditorium.
Dr. Timothy Okeke, who teaches social work and psychology, said it thrilled him during the election to witness the support Obama received from all Americans.
“Everybody sees good in him,” said Okeke, a native of Africa. “That gives me hope.”
Barbara Neely, a math professor, said the Obama presidency is “a dream come true for all of us,” including the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the founding fathers of Livingstone College and current Livingstone President Jimmy Jenkins. It will take Livingstone as an institution to a new level, she predicted.
“We’re witnessing history,” said Juanita Allen, director of college skills. “It gives us hope.”
For students, Constance Johnson said, the Obama presidency gives them hope that the nation is moving in a positive direction. Their personal ceilings have been heightened, and they realize their potential is unlimited, she added.
“It’s a life-changing, historical event,” Johnson said.
Elizabeth Mills, executive director of the Salisbury-Rowan Community Action Agency Inc., spoke briefly to the Livingstone audience while the television feed was down.
Since Obama’s election, Mills said, she often has heard people mention that Obama now owes black Americans something.
“Obama doesn’t owe us anything,” Mills said. “We owe him. We owe Barack something ó respect and honor.”
Kay Dover, a 59-year-old local Realtor who earned her bachelor’s degree in business administration from Livingstone in 2006, recalled when she first saw, as an 8-year-old, the segregated water fountains and restrooms at the Salisbury Belk store.
“Praise God, those days are gone,” said Dover, who is white.
Dover encouraged the young people in the audience to pray with their eyes wide open in the future. By doing so, they can see their brothers and sisters beside them and ask, “What can I do to help them be successful?” Dover said.
“It’s what Obama’s doing now,” she said.