By AARON BURGIN
Dorothy Inghram was moved to tears as she saw President-elect Barack Obama make history Nov. 4.
Inghram knows what it means to tear down racial barriers. When the 103-year-old began teaching at Mill Street School in San Bernardino in 1942, she became San Bernardino County's first black schoolteacher. Inghram later became the state's first black school administrator.
"I sat here all by myself and shed a tear like all black people did all over the world," Inghram said in a phone conversation last week.
From Temecula to Banning, Riverside to San Bernardino, black trailblazers in their respective fields celebrated the election of the nation's first president of color filled with hope for the future.
Some said while the moment was euphoric, the reality is that America still has a long way to go before truly achieving color-blindness. Others, like Hazel Russell, Riverside's first black schoolteacher, believed Obama's ascent to the presidency may finally signal that future generations will be judged on their abilities, not their ethnicity.
"Oh my God, how far we've come," Russell said. "It's a miraculous thing. It almost feels like the difference between night and day, and I am glad to say that the changes have been for the better."
Obama an Example
When Inghram grew up in San Bernardino, the city still had shades of Jim Crow: Blacks could not stay at local hotels; hospitals would not employ black nurses; restaurants still had signs that said "Whites only."
She earned an elementary school teaching credential in 1939, but schools would not hire her because she was black. A black San Bernardino school board member, Minnie Lockert, convinced the board that Mill Street School needed to hire Inghram, who began teaching there in 1942.
Inghram is a living legend in San Bernardino; the city named a library in her honor.
Back in 1942, Inghram saw herself not only as a qualified educator, but someone whom young black students could look up to. Obama, she said, is the ultimate role model for black youths.
"I felt it was something good for our young people, to see what you can achieve if you stay in school and get your education," she said. "A lot of times this is because they don't have people to look up to as examples of what they can become."
It's getting better
Russell, 84, said she wasn't faced with racism growing up in an all-black community in southern Texas. She got her first real dose of the racial divide when she moved to Riverside with her husband, a soldier from Riverside she met while he was stationed in Lubbock, Texas, where she taught at a segregated school.
In Riverside, Russell said, black people lived "between Cottage and Ninth Street."
Despite being told by the first principal who interviewed her that the school didn't want to take a chance on a black person, Russell pressed on. Eventually she went on to teach at another school, Casa Blanca Elementary, for 17 years.
As an educator, she taught during a time when schools were still segregated. America, she said, has come a long way in the 61 years since her achievement. Obama is proof.
"I never thought in my lifetime I would see a black man as president; it was unthinkable," Russell said. "It is a testament to how far we've come."
Racism a reality
Debbie Franklin, of Banning, became that city's first black council member in 2006. She speaks proudly of Obama's victory but is concerned about a statement she hears frequently about the president's chances of surviving his first term.
"People ask me all the time, 'Is he going to make it out alive?' " Franklin said. "And that really bothers me. Have we not advanced as a country enough that this man's life would be in jeopardy because he is black?"
Speaking from personal experience, Franklin said the country hasn't.
"Racism is still out there," she said. "It may not be the overt racism that we dealt with in this country in the past, but it is that subtle, subversive racism that is expressed not in words but by actions."
Franklin recently accused a fellow council member, Barbara Hanna, of making racist and demeaning comments toward her, a charge Hanna has denied. An investigation into the allegations is ongoing.
Franklin said she holds out hope that Obama's election signals the beginning of the end of the subtle form of racism. She believes it will take another generation before true color-blindness is a reality.
"At that point, I think with the interracial marriages that we see today, we will reach a point where race truly doesn't matter, because we all will have a little of each other in us," Franklin said.
Looking past color
As Obama campaigned for the nation's highest office, Temecula City Councilman Chuck Washington, 55, was asking Temecula voters to "Get on the Chuck wagon" for his second term in office.
What impressed Washington about Obama's campaign was that he did not run a campaign based on his race.
"He didn't campaign on a platform of 'elect me because I am black,' " Washington said. "He campaigned on a platform of 'elect me because I am the most qualified candidate.' "
This is a mantra Washington has lived by in his campaign career, which has been pioneering in its own right. Washington, a former Murrieta councilman, is the first elected official in Riverside County -- and the first black elected official in the nation -- to serve as mayor in two cities.
He is also one of a handful of black commercial airline pilots.
While acknowledging the historic disparity of opportunity for black people, Washington said his focus has always been on living his life as an example.
"If I were to live my life constantly dwelling on the fact that the playing field is not level, I would become a victim of my own attitude," Washington said. "I didn't want to let that happen."
Washington watched the election results with his wife, Kathy, and daughter. Being part of a mixed-race family, Washington said Obama's story hit close to home.
"My daughter was a big Barack fan," he said. "Watching the election results come in, both mine and Barack's, with my family and watching history being made was truly special. I was on Cloud 9."
Published: Monday, November 17, 2008