African-American Heritage Association celebrates Obama at RAF Lakenheath
January 19, 2009
RAF LAKENHEATH, England — Retired Air Force Maj. Chuck Richardson never thought he would see the day when a black man was elected president.
But there he was Saturday night at a pre-inauguration celebration hosted by the local African-American Heritage Association in honor of President-elect Barack Obama, who will be sworn in Tuesday.
"It’s very significant to me because I never thought it would happen in my lifetime," said Richardson, 65, who flew B-52 bombers during the Vietnam War. Though the military was integrated by the time he was commissioned in 1966, Richardson experienced segregation first-hand growing up in North Carolina and was active in the civil rights movement while in college.
The election of Obama "shows you how far this country has come," said Richardson, who has lived in England since retiring in 1987.
Speeches and poetry recited throughout the night focused on the historical significance of Obama as America’s first black president and the challenges that will shape his legacy in office regardless of race.
Thoughts about what the election means to the black community and the country as a whole in terms of race relations were tempered by hopeful sentiments that Obama would live up to his promises of uniting the country during a time of war and tough economic times.
Master Sgt. Martigo Caldwell, with the 48th Force Support Squadron, echoed a refrain heard throughout the night: "I hope we look back at Barack Obama not as a great black president but as a great president who just happened to be black."
For Senior Airman Devon Smith, a firefighter with the 48th Civil Engineering Squadron, the celebration was a "once-in-a-lifetime event."
"I’m proud to be part of this," said Smith, one of several young airmen who played music for the crowd. "This is something I’m going to be able to tell my grandkids about."
Some who attended the event did not vote for Obama.
Take Maj. Erica Clarke, a member of the 48th Medical Group at Lakenheath. Clarke, who is black, said she cast her vote for president with faith-based issues, not race, in mind.
"The assumption was that if you’re black you supported Obama," said the mother of five, whose husband voted for Obama. Still, she said, "I think he’ll do a wonderful job."
Her husband, Roderick Clarke, originally supported John McCain but decided to vote for Obama based on his positions on several factors, including the economy.
"I didn’t just say, ‘Oh, he’s black, I’m voting for him,’ " he said. "There’s a lot to deal with right now with the economy. And being black, white or Chinese has nothing to do with it."
Staff Sgt. Kia Hickson, who helped emcee the event, said she hopes Obama’s presidency turns the tide in American politics away from race.
The election of nation’s first African-American president "means a lot to the black community, especially for some of the older folks who experienced a lot of racism first-hand," she said. "But I want my children and future generations to look back on him not as the black president but just as President Obama."
E-mail Charlie Reed at: firstname.lastname@example.org