CHICAGO -- Barack Obama's hometown erupted with joy and pride Tuesday night.
Tens of thousands of people in Grant Park and across the city cheered and wept as the man who came here in 1985 to work in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods was elected the USA's first black president.
"Prayers do come true. This is a great country," said Martin Steele, 64, a janitor on his way to work who paused to watch a TV monitor at NBC studios showing Obama racking up wins in state after state. Steele, who is black, hugged two strangers and said, "We are making history tonight!"
Shirley Herbert, 28, a hair stylist, stood nearby. "Is this real?" she asked. "If it is, this is the most important day of my life."
In Grant Park, John Todd, 33, a lawyer who is black, listened to updates on a radio. He felt "a little disbelief" when it became clear that Obama would win as he recalled the dashed hopes of Democratic wins in 2000 and 2004.
A black man in the White House "is something I thought I'd see maybe as an older man. This is really unbelievable," Todd said. Looking at the crowd around him, he said, "You're seeing America: every age, every race. It's encouraging. Maybe we can."
Jack Kreitinger, 57, an interior designer who is white, said Obama's election means "we're moving to a post-racial society. That's my dream and hope."
Well-behaved throngs watching a giant TV screen cheered as CNN projected Obama the winner in Pennsylvania and a succession of other states.
Messages on T-shirts foretold victory: "I was there when change happened in Grant Park." Another played on "yes, we can" — a refrain from Obama's speeches — and said: "Yes, we did." Buildings on the skyline were lit up to read "Vote 2008."
Part of history
From polling places in black churches to white neighborhoods where lines of voters extended around the block, exhilaration built through the day.
Thomas Molinari, 32, a Web technician who is white, got in line for the rally before noon. He was drawn, he said, by "history, hope and a better tomorrow."
Charlene Williams, 47, a precinct captain at Beulah Shoesmith Elementary School, where Obama voted, said, "Today makes me feel like I'm somebody."
At Grant Park, Marcia Henderson, a 55-year-old black woman, said she wanted to be here "to see Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream come to pass."
Security was tight across the city, but the mood was festive. After nightfall, temperatures were in the 60s — a November rarity.
Voters said they felt they were helping make history with Obama, who lives in the Hyde Park neighborhood. In black parts of the city's South Side, voters said this Election Day was like no other in their lifetimes.
"I wish my father were alive now," said Epsienola Freeman, 92, after voting for Obama at Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church. "I prayed, 'Dad, I'm going to vote. Mom, I'm going to vote. I'm going to vote to make a black man our president.' I know they are proud," she said. "I never thought I would see this day."
Margaret Bryant, 71, said, "I'm so thankful I'm living to see this particular day." She was so confident of Obama's success, Bryant said, she made a train reservation Tuesday morning to travel to Washington for his inauguration.
Concrete barriers blocked traffic from the streets around Obama's home. And bulletproof glass was erected around the stage at Grant Park, the sprawling landmark along Lake Michigan that was the site of violent clashes during the 1968 Democratic convention and the stage for a visit by Pope John Paul II in 1979.
Andrea Caron, 27, a lawyer, sat on a blanket reading a book while waiting outside the park for hours. She wanted to witness history. "The last two elections were so demoralizing," she said.
Lewis Kreinberg, 72, a Democrat with a long history of organizing Chicago's Jewish communities, voted for Obama and said, "It's about time to be able to see this happen." He noted that Obama and Abraham Lincoln share Illinois roots. "This child," he said of Obama, "is going to do something special."
The mood was subdued at a hotel gathering of 150 members of the Chicago Young Republicans. "It's worse than I thought it was going to be," said mortgage broker Michael Volpe, 34.
Other Republicans acknowledged the significance of Obama's victory.
Marla Baxter, 37, a mother of five, voted for McCain, but said Obama "is somebody we can all be proud of, too. I tell my children that he's living proof that if they work hard enough, the color of their skin can't stop them from doing whatever they want."
Some Obama supporters celebrated in private. Annie Herper, 51, watched results with her family. "I know Obama's going to win," she said. "I'm ready. This whole neighborhood is ready. The whole country is ready."
Marie Washington, 61, stopped at church on her way home from the financial services company where she works.
She prayed for Obama to "be given wisdom and strength and safety," she said, and "that all my ancestors, the slaves and the children of slaves, are somehow watching this historic moment."
Contributing: Kathy Kiely