When President-elect Barack Obama takes the oath of office on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in January, he'll be standing on stone that was laid by more than 400 African slaves who helped build the structure from 1792 to 1800.
While few modern Americans are aware of the role that slaves played in the nation's early days, Obama's inauguration will be a pivotal moment in its centuries-old struggle to purge itself of the sins of slavery.
As the world digests the significance of the nation's first African American president, black historians are likewise trying to put Obama's accomplishment in the proper perspective.
In the centuries since the first Africans were brought to Jamestown, Va., in 1619, many seminal events have shaped the black experience in America.
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Few, however, have the symbolic power of Obama's triumph.
“This is one of the most historic moments, if not the most historic moment, in the history of this country,” said 93-year-old John Hope Franklin, professor emeritus of history at Duke University.
Franklin said Wednesday he was confident Obama would reach the historic milestone.
“I knew that it would come sooner or later,” Franklin said. “I had the chance to meet and talk with him, so I was not shocked or terribly surprised because he is a winner.”
Others weren't so confident in the past but are seeing things in a different light.
“I've taught for 35 years and I always tell my students, ‘When race comes into play, logic has a way of exiting.' But I may have to revise that thinking after this,” said Horace Huntley, a historian and the director of oral history at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. “Now it appears that logic may be overtaking the illogical. It appears there's a groundswell of sensibility.”
What Obama's victory means for America's racial progress can be viewed through different prisms: that it happened despite lingering racism or because the country has evolved – or both.
Clarence Williams, a history professor at the University of California at Davis, was pessimistic about Obama's chances, saying he never thought he'd see a black president in his lifetime.
“Because I think of the United States, historically, as a deeply and pervasive racist country,” Williams said. “It may have changed a bit in some ways, but in some ways it has not. And I have no shame about saying that to you.”
Yet Williams, who describes his feelings about America as “critical patriotism,” said that he, too, was heartened by the widespread support that Obama got from nonblack voters who gravitated to his positive message.
“This notion of giving people hope is a very important thing,” he said.
Nell Painter, a history professor emeritus at Princeton University, also was taken by the country's ability, in the end, to judge a black candidate based on his ideas rather than skin color.
“The idea that we can vote for a black person for president just really makes me feel good about the United States, given our history,” Painter said. “It's like we're saying ‘Look, we're not these bad old people any more. We're fair-minded.' It's a powerfully positive statement about the United States turning its back on its evil ways.”
But Williams warned that Obama's victory doesn't mean that America is or ever will be colorblind. “But what it does is suggest we have taken another gigantic step forward with our racial problem,” Williams said.