Black child of segregation-era Mississippi reflects on Obama assuming presidency

'I never thought I'd see history made with a black man in the White House'

Verlean Brown felt the sharp prick of cotton pods against her skin and the acute pain of racism while growing up as a sharecropper in the deepest south of Mississippi. It was the place her great-grandmother had been brought to as a slave, the place her mother watched a childhood friend get lynched for whispering to a white woman, the place where she herself couldn't use public water fountains. For not one minute of the many days when she rose at four so a truck could carry her teenage body to the fields where she bent to work all day, in summer under sweltering heat, coming home with hands scratched and bloody more than 12 hours later, did Brown imagine that she would live to see an African American man sworn in as president. "Never," she said, tears coming to her eyes. "I never thought I'd ever see history made with a black man in the White House." Yet on Tuesday, she found herself standing before the US Capitol to witness just that, having obtained a prized up-front ticket for the inauguration of Barack Obama thanks to her own trailblazing role as the first African American from Kansas, her current home, to serve on the board of the National Education Association teachers' union. Though the 58-year-old middle school teacher no longer lives in the Deep South, having earned an education and found work in the Midwestern state that Obama's mother hailed from, she still feels the sting of bigotry. While canvassing state-wide for her NEA position, she had a hard time in small, all-white towns where locals looked at her askance - and worse. Her daughter, a waitress, regularly faces customers who ask the restaurant to assign a server who isn't black. So Brown said she realized that not all of the US's racial woes would be healed once Obama took over. "It's going to take a while. This is not going to make it happen overnight - but it's coming. It is coming." Within herself, she has already felt a difference. "It changed my feelings about America," explained Brown, "as far as me feeling that I'm part of the country." Beneath her fur-lined black winter coat, protecting her against the January cold Tuesday, an American flag peaked out from around her neck - the kind of proudly patriotic flourish she has taken to only recently. "I feel that we're going to be more accepted. I feel that I can walk and stand proud with my shoulders up. I'm a person now, not just an object, in society." But perhaps the biggest difference will come for the children she teaches, whose sense of their own identities and possibilities have been altered in one fell swoop. As the melody of "America the Beautiful" rang out from the inaugural platform, Brown noted that she had already observed such change among many of the minority students she teaches at her Wichita school. Before the inauguration, a 13-year-old Hispanic student who wanted to be a doctor came up to Brown and told her, "Now I know I can do it." "Yes, you can," Brown agreed, unconsciously using the slogan uttered at Obama's campaign stops around the country and at the end of his inaugural address Tuesday. "You could do it before he came into office, but now you have a role model."