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Black voters saw ballots as a part of history

For hours, the Obama faithful sat in the pews of Baltimore's Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, watching a large-screen television and waiting for the election results. When CNN announced that he had won, people ran down the sanctuary's aisles, crying.

And later, near midnight, when Obama appeared on screen, the crowd of more than 200 stood and cheered. Some clasped their hands, as if in prayer; others waved and chanted "Obama, Obama," or took photos of the television screen.

Denise Mattei wiped away tears. "I just can't stop crying," said Mattei, who had a half-dozen Obama buttons pinned to her clothes. "I'm so blessed to live through this period in history."

All day, black voters determined to make history streamed to the polls in Maryland, in what experts estimated as a record turnout. They came in groups, sometimes generations deep - seniors, teens and families with children in tow. Some were die-hard Democrats, others were first-timers who had shed their disillusionment with the political process.

From precinct to precinct, there was a common refrain:

"I never thought I'd see this day."

For some, casting a ballot for Barack Obama was not only about electing a black man to the nation's highest office. It was also the fulfillment of a dream rooted firmly in the African-American experience.

Eunice Frazier, 75, moved slowly to the voting booth with the assistance of a walker and her 10-year-old granddaughter, Samantha, at Oaklands Elementary School in Prince George's County. Frazier said she voted for Obama with Samantha guiding her through the touch-screen system.

"It means we've come a long, long, long way," said Frazier, a retired elementary school administrator. "In my lifetime, I have seen so much. We've come up from slavery, school integration and Martin Luther King Jr."

"This vote is the answer to the prayers of slaves who died on the middle passage," said Bethel AME's pastor, the Rev. Frank M. Reid III. "It's about a new era in our struggle. ... We need to take responsibility for our future."

With raucous chants of "Yes, we did," hundreds of Democrats celebrated Obama's victory at an election-night party in downtown Baltimore. Among them were the state's highest-ranking black politicians, eager to celebrate.

"My mother is smiling over me right now. My ancestors are saying they struggled to see this day," Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon told the crowd before she was drowned out by cheers. In an interview, Dixon said Obama's appeal was spiritual.

"It's not about the fact that he's black. When you feel the spirit of God working through people, it's different than a man working on his own. I could see that spirit. It was not just a matter of black and white."

"People will be talking about this election for 1,000 years," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings. "This election in and of itself is the audacity of hope."

History and excitement mixed with regret for Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Baltimore's City Council president. She wished her father, the late Del. Howard P. Rawlings, was by her side to witness Obama's win.

"On a day like this, you long to share this moment in history with loved ones you know would have cherished it," she said.

The Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant of Baltimore said Obama's triumph resonates with the hip-hop generation, whose major role models have been athletes and entertainers - until now.

Earlier, as projections flashed across the television screen at Bethel AME indicating an Obama lead in Florida, a crowd of several hundred parishioners roared with excitement.

A cautiously optimistic Rebecca Tinch, of Catonsville, withheld her applause.

"That's only 1 percent of the vote," she said with a sigh. "Funny things happen in Florida."

Her friend Genear Baker, however, let loose a small, but enthusiastic, cheer.

Their mood turned serious when the pair pondered how American race relations might change under an Obama presidency.

"I think a lot of white people are scared of what might happen if he wins," said Baker, 55, of Catonsville. "Why is that? I don't understand what they are afraid of."

"I want to believe they just don't know what to expect," Tinch responded. "Just look at all the people of all backgrounds who support Obama. That's an indication of where this country is going."

Trepidation collided with enthusiasm at polling places across the state.

Lakisha Singleton was confident yesterday afternoon, even though her day began with tears.

Her 70-year-old father called to tell her he had cast a ballot for the first time in his life. The retired logger from southern Virginia used to think that voting never made a difference. Until yesterday.

"It made me so emotional," said Singleton, a 32-year-old program manager for IBM, as she left the polling site at Mount Ephraim Baptist Church in Upper Marlboro.

Singleton's parents grew up in the Jim Crow South. Her mother, an avid voter, told Singleton that the first time she voted, she was forced to recite part of the Constitution before casting a ballot.

Singleton asked a stranger in the church parking lot to snap her photo, while stood beaming in the rain. "I want to be able to tell my kids and my grandkids that I voted for Barack that day. I want them to have this photo as a record of history."

While many voters noted the historic occasion, they also maintained that Obama's race was not the defining factor in their vote.

Danita George arrived at her polling place in Woodlawn at 6:45 a.m. and waited more than an hour to vote. She said she would have waited even longer to vote for Obama, who made her cry with his speech at the Democratic convention this year.

"He speaks to a lot of the issues I face as a single parent," said George, 47, who has a 13-year-old son. She works two jobs-painting roads for Baltimore County and driving a shuttle bus for the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "He just touches me to the core."

Baltimore Sun reporters Brent Jones, Stephen Kiehl, Laura Smitherman, Gadi Dechter and Gus Sentementes contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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