They voted when they had to pay a poll tax for the privilege, sat in the back of buses, chopped wood to heat segregated schools and stayed indoors at night when the Ku Klux Klan was in town.
America's older black voters - who grew up under the doctrine of "separate but equal," came of age during the civil rights movement and this week saw an African-American elected president of the country that once deemed them less than full citizens - said yesterday that they could not believe what they had witnessed.
"It hasn't sunk in yet," said George Cole, 59, who works for Baltimore's Parks and Recreation Department. Cole, who grew up in Aberdeen, said that once a year, the Klan would gather on a farm near his home. The line of Airstream trailers is a vision seared in his mind.
"It doesn't seem that long ago," said Cole, who waited two hours to vote for Barack Obama for president and cried when the networks declared him the winner. "When he puts his hand on the Bible, then I'll know he's in."
The victory of the Democratic senator from Illinois was the product of a broad range of support, from young voters, Latinos, suburban whites, the poor, the wealthy and independents. But perhaps it means the most to older blacks who have seen the sweep of history in their lifetime. It was not for nothing that the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, who is 67, was seen crying at Obama's victory celebration Tuesday night in Chicago.
For many, the idea of an African-American rising to the nation's highest office prompted reflections on how far they had come and where they had started. They remembered being denied entrance to movie theaters and department stores and, in Baltimore, being limited to attending three city high schools - Dunbar, Douglass and Carver - where they used secondhand books from the white schools.
Doris M. McKinley, 72, a Douglass graduate, gathered with friends yesterday at the Forest Park Senior Center in exhilaration and disbelief. She said the moment was long overdue, more than two centuries into the country's racially torturous existence, but welcome all the same.
"When I saw the struggle with my grandmother, who was a slave, to see this day arrive made me tear up," McKinley said. "I did cry last night, and I'm still crying."
In East Baltimore, on a grassy corner lot known as the Elders Garden, a dozen men gathered yesterday as they do every day, and talk turned to the election. The men sat on lawn chairs and at picnic tables under a green awning. An Obama-Biden sign was planted nearby.
"I didn't think I'd live to see it," said Toy Farrar Jr., 80, who grew up on a farm in Chapel Hill, N.C. He thought about the line that stretches from his ancestors to his young grandchildren who now believe that anything is possible because they have seen it happen.
"My father has passed. My grandfather is gone," Farrar said, before turning to the future. "I think it will be better than it is now," he said. "It can't be no worse."
Elliot Young, 66, recalled marching in Raleigh, N.C., for rights now taken for granted. He knew progress would come, but not like this. "We thought it would be better for people," he said, "but that we would not be able to reach this point."
The Rev. Marion C. Bascom, a Baltimore civil rights activist, voted for Obama with memories of Selma, Ala., on his mind. He was there for the historic march for voting rights in 1965. He led integration efforts around Baltimore during the civil rights movement, and as early as 1947, launched a voting rights effort from his church in St. Augustine, Fla.
But Tuesday was something new.
"I thought of all the people, people whose names are no longer remembered, who struggled mightily to get us to register and vote," Bascom said. "This is change. I don't think there is any other choice. There is no return to what once was."
All day yesterday, the customers at Thomas's Barbershop near Clifton Park talked of the election. Barber Larry Foy, 60, grew up in Fayetteville, N.C., where he was not allowed to sit at lunch counters with whites and the sign that greeted visitors to town said: "Welcome to Fayetteville. Join and support the United Klans of America."
"I've never gone to school with white kids. I've always gone to a segregated school," he said between customers. "The teachers would say, 'You can be anyone you want to be. You just have to prepare yourself.' That's what you were conditioned to think. And now it seems like what they were telling me has come true."
For the past few weeks, Delores Douglass, 69, has slept with the television on, not wanting to miss one moment of the election's final days. She spent Tuesday documenting history as it unfolded, snapping photos of people standing in the long line around her polling place in Woodlawn.
And when Douglass learned that Obama would be her next president, she recorded the fact in her Bible - as she has done with significant family events, like generations of blacks before her.
"I'm so proud," said Douglass, president of the Woodlawn Senior Center council. "The feelings are so deep that I could not adequately put them into words. ... I see the culmination of all this hope that we were speaking about. It's a good time to be an American."
But the moment also has a tinge of the bittersweet. Douglass wished that her father, the great-grandson of a slave, were alive to see it.
"This would have meant so very much to him - just to know that this can happen," she said, tearing up at the thought. Her father died in 1992, she said. "He would never have thought ... that this would happen in anybody's lifetime."
Frances Knockett, 66, of Pikesville nodded in agreement. "All our parents and grandparents," she said, "would have loved this moment."
Baltimore Sun reporters Kelly Brewington, Arin Gencer and Brent Jones contributed to this article.