George Greene watched the black man appear on his television screen on Tuesday night above the words “president-elect,” the 83-year old World War II veteran had only one thought.
“I never thought I’d live to see the day!” he recalled thinking to himself as Illinois Sen. Barack Obama celebrated his historic election as president.
After all, Greene said he clearly remembered the days when a very different word was used to describe blacks.
“When I got out of the Navy [in the mid-1940s], I went into construction here in Brooklyn, and one of my bosses used the N-word on me, so I slugged him,” said Greene.
In many parts of the country at the time, such a response to a taunt could have been a death sentence, but Greene was lucky.
“The big boss was Jewish, and he just laughed it off,” he said. “I don’t think he liked the other guy either.”
Greene was just one of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of black Brooklynites relishing Obama’s victory on Wednesday. For people who hold still-raw memories of the days before they could vote or, indeed, when their grandparents and great-grandparents could be owned, Obama’s triumph was savored for hours.
“I didn’t go to sleep until 5 am,” said Francisca Macaulay, who lives in Crown Heights, where people were dancing in the streets until dawn.
Again, many years ago, such a public display of political power was met with violence.
The president-elect was 4 years old when the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. marched from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama, but Joycelyn Joseph remembers it very well.
“I saw black people get attacked with dogs and fire hoses on TV,” recalled Joseph. “It made me so angry. It never crossed my mind that one day there would be a black president.”
Yet even as they marveled at the Obama presidency, many African-Americans in Brooklyn were quick to point out that this was not just a “black” story or a “white” story, but an American story.
“It wasn’t just black people who voted for him,” said Elizabeth Vilabrera of Prospect Heights. “Sixty percent of [the voters] were white.