Anticipation Builds in Harlem, as Election Results for Obama Come In

Harlemites gather at famed corner, moved by a sense of history in the making.

November 4, 2008, 6:11 PM

Nov. 4, 2008— -- All eyes are on Harlem tonight as workers hustled to erect a JumboTron television set where thousands of people hope to watch history in the making -- the election of America's first black president.

"I've lived here all my life, 33 years, and this is the first time I have seen anything like this in Harlem," said Elbert Garcia, a coordinator for Democratic Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York, who is sponsoring the jumbo celebration in the plaza of the New York City neighborhood's state office building.

"Robocall [automated telemarketing phone calls] sent out a message Saturday and told them to press No. 1 if they were coming, and 14,000 responded," Garcia told ABCNews, while directing the activity.

By midafternoon, 125th Street, the heart of Harlem's commercial center, was bustling with street vendors -- many with Obama T-shirts and buttons, hawking CDs, herbal oils and African wood carvings.

Set in the Adam Clayton Powell Plaza, the stage is aptly sandwiched between the iconic Apollo Theater, which launched the musical careers of jazz and blues greats, and the big-box stores, which have come to symbolize Harlem's economic renaissance.

The celebration is expected to draw thousands of ordinary Harlemites, as well as African-American celebrities such as Harry Belafonte and Wynton Marsalis, and perhaps a surprise appearance by actor John Cusack.

"It's going to be crazy," said one security guard, ushering in news trucks.

With a few hours to go before polls close, crews were still erecting bleachers, constructing media platforms and waiting for the arrival of the 33-by-100-foot long, 50-foot high television screen.

"There's going to be a real uproar tonight," said Donna Williams, 47, who was enjoying a relaxing moment on the bleachers. "You know who we voted for: Obama is intelligent, well-spoken and well-educated."

Her husband drew a sly smile, saying, "I voted for McCain," then confessed he was joking.

"There'll be hooting and hollering and some crying," said her husband Curtis Williams, 47.

"From what I've see, they'll be tears of joy," she added.

History in the Making: The First Black President

Although both admitted to that the "unexpected is always possible," they were optimistic that Obama would garner at least the 270 electoral votes he needs to win the election.

"Right now, it's a little subdued," he said. "It's going to be history in the making."

Earlier in the day, lines wrapped around polling stations where a record number of African-American voters -- mirroring record numbers in all demographic groups around the nation -- cast their ballots.

Buses honked and waved as voters lined the street, shouting, "Obama." Even neighborhood Starbucks outlets were offering free coffee to those who voted.

One 26-year-old voter who arrived before 6 a.m. finally cast his ballot at 8:30 a.m.

Hope for an Obama victory pulsated up and down 125th Street. Although the first poll returns were hours away, hundreds of onlookers crowded the corner of 125th and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard to view the latest news on CNN from the JumboTron set up for public viewing of the election returns.

And whether Obama wins or loses, Ivory Atlee, a 34-year-old, black investment banker, said he'll no doubt have a transformative effect on younger black Americans, who've been bombarded with negative imagery in recent years.

"It's real hope," he said. "There's so many negative images out there. To see Barack and his family endure what they've endured will carry us a long way."

At the Adam Clayton Powell voting station, where tonight's event was being orchestrated, voting was orderly, and bilingual translators were on hand to assist.

One 21-year-old, who arrived with her brother, sister and their young children, said she was excited to cast her first vote in such a historic election. "We are all so excited," Chanelle Bekles, an English student at nearby Fordham University, told

As the iconic and emotional heart of New York City's African-American community, Harlem was home to the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell and black publisher and orator Marcus Garvey. Malcolm X died here after his assassination in 1965.

Obama Embraced by African-American Community

David Dinkins, who served as New York City's first and only black mayor, from 1989 to 1993, acknowledged that other African-Americans, especially the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., had laid the groundwork for an Obama presidency.

"Everybody stands on everybody else's shoulders," he told earlier this week. "Today blacks are swelling with pride.

"I am a child of the Depression, in the Marine Corps in 1945 stationed in the South," Dinkins, 81, and now a professor at Columbia University, said. "I know how it was when black soldiers and Marines were treated less well than German prisoners of war. These were the days of white and colored water fountains."

Obama's ascent from community organizer to the Illinois Senate to the U.S. Senate and perhaps beyond, has historic significance, win or lose.

"It demonstrates to everyone that folks of color can read and write and count and think like everyone else," Dinkins said. "We've come a long way, but it's still important to recognize the legacy of slavery. We still live in a racist society."

"It represents a kind of culmination of long struggle for absolute participation in the American Drean," said the Rev. Calvin Butts, whose politically active Abyssinian Baptist Church celebrates its 200th anniversary next week. "This is all part of the political struggle that part of the history of church."

Local churches have been active in getting out the vote. "One young man took his aged mother down six flights of stairs this morning just to vote," Butts said

"The mood is one of great hope and inspiration. When you mention his [Obama's] name in church, it gets a standing ovation. People have been hyped up for a long time and are already referring to him as President Obama."

Obama as President: Progress for Black History

In a place like Harlem, where gentrification has added white faces to its neighborhood streets, many people believe an Obama presidency reflects its own progress.

"American democracy is truly becoming fully multicultural in relation to voting, power and ethnicity," said Manning Marable, director of the Center for Contemporary Black History at Harlem's Columbia University. "He's not about racial confrontation, and he represents racial conciliation and the bridging of racial differences, even in his own person."

But the author of soon-to-be-published "Barack Obama and New Black Politics" told he's looking forward to tonight, where he will be home, just a stone's throw from Harlem.

"It's going to be at a party," Marable said. "Like when [heavyweight boxing champion] Joe Louis knocked out [German champ] Max Schmeling in 1938."

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