In Chicago, tears and cheers of joy

  • Article by: MICHAEL FINNEGAN and P.J. HUFFSTUTTER , Los Angeles Times
  • Updated: November 5, 2008 - 1:15 AM

CHICAGO - The tens of thousands celebrating in a park on the Lake Michigan shoreline Tuesday night roared louder each time the giant video monitors showed Barack Obama had won another battleground state: Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Ohio, Iowa, New Mexico.

"O-Ba-Ma! O-Ba-Ma!"

Finally, the underlying anxiety that he might lose gave way once and for all at 10 p.m. local time, when the mass of humanity saw CNN declare Obama the 44th president of the United States.

They shrieked. They leaped with joy. They hugged strangers. They knelt down and prayed. And they cried.

"I knew it!" shouted Will Grandbery, 23, a black man from Chicago. "I knew he could do it! I knew it wasn't just talk! Hallelujah!"

For Democrats, the despair that followed defeats in the presidential contests of 2000 and 2004 was over.

A momentous moment

But Obama's supporters, young and old of every race, rejoiced over more than that. With the election of a black president, the United States had crossed its highest racial barrier, and the magnitude of that step was lost on no one.

Certainly not on Brooke Tafoya, a 31-year-old social worker from southeast Chicago.

"It's one of the most positive moments of my whole life," she said, tears streaming down her face. "When I look back and people ask, 'Where were you?' I can be proud to say I was here and watched the whole thing happen. It's our hometown guy making good."

Beth Keegan, a 45-year-old white teacher from the wealthy suburb of Winnetka, jumped in the air and hugged her friend when Obama's victory was announced.

"I'm ecstatic!" she yelled. "It will be the beginning of racial healing in the country."

Chicago launched Obama on his journey to the White House, electing him to the Illinois state Senate 12 years ago. Now the world had turned its gaze on the city and its most famous resident.

Skyscrapers stayed lighted on an improbably warm November night. Some windows of one high-rise spelled out "U.S.A." On the top floor of another park-front building, revelers watched the crowd from a terrace awash in red, white and blue lights.

By the time Obama and the rest of the soon-to-be first family walked onstage, the crowd in Grant Park and the surrounding area had grown to more than 240,000, according to the city's emergency management office.

"Hello, Chicago," Obama said, greeting the crowd.

Mellie Tess, 26, hollered: "Welcome, Mr. President!"

On this day, Obama told the rapturous audience, Americans had "put their hands on the arc of history" and bent it "toward the hope of a better day."

"It's been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, on this election, in this defining moment, change is coming to America," Obama told his supporters, who cried and nodded as he spoke. The Rev. Jesse Jackson and Oprah Winfrey were in the crowd.

A part of history

Obama's supporters had started lining up nearly 12 hours earlier outside chain-link fences set up at the park. Nana Appiah squeezed through the crowd and pressed against the fence with one hope: To see the stage.

"I need to be there for myself," said Appiah, 49, who has spent most of his life here. "It doesn't matter that I don't have a ticket into the rally. I just want to be there -- be as close as I can to history."

The black cabdriver was far from alone.

All day and well into the night, thousands crowded Chicago's downtown streets with hopes of seeing Obama.

Appiah shuttled scores to the park in his Checker Cab. After work, he parked, pulled on a pair of sneakers and started walking.

As CNN began calling out states that Obama was winning, Appiah looked skyward. Tears trickled down his cheeks. He could taste them as he smiled.

Throughout the evening, the crowd burst into chants of "Yes we can!"

But a button pinned on the lapel of one Obama supporter captured the spirit of the moment better: "Yes we did."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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