There was an atmosphere of festiveness in the basement of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, the historic African-American congregation in Harlem.
More than 150 people — from high school students to senior citizens, watched the inauguration of the nation's first Black president on a large screen adjacent to the church’s fellowship hall. And they were riveted by virtually every scene they watched.
They cheered when Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of the slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, completed the invocation. They cheered wildly for Sonia Sotomayor, when she rose to swear in Vice President Joe Biden. (There was decidedly less enthusiasm about James Taylor’s rendition of America the Beautiful.) When President Obama took the oath of office, there was unrestrained applause. The cheering was deafening when Beyoncé sang the National Anthem.
“It was so inspiring empowering to see an African-American in the highest position in the country,” said Kyle Bartos, a 16-year-year high school sophomore, who lives in East Harlem. “I may not be president one day. But I know that I, as a Black man, can be successful in this world without being an athlete or a rapper.”
The high school student added that he was particularly riveted by the president’s speech. “I thought his use of the term ‘We, the People’ was a triumph for everyone,” Kyle said, “He emphasized that we’re all part of this diverse America. It was great.”
He was part of Abyssinian’s Blue Nile program, which offers leadership and mentoring to youth in Harlem. About 50 students came to the inauguration viewing event at the 205-year-old church, which was once pastored by the legendary Black congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. The day-long program was overseen by the church's pastor, Calvin O. Butts III, who is also president of the State University of New York at Old Westbury.
But there were others who came, mainly more seasoned members of the church’s congregation. The Abyssinian viewing was part of a day-long series of activities that included offering documentaries about the life of Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday was celebrated with speeches and seminars.
Many said they came here mainly to be in the community with others, explaining that they considered the inauguration to be an event that should not be watched alone.
“I wanted to come to see the reaction of our young people and to be with members of my church,” said Hastie Lowther, who worked in the administration for New York City for more than three decades before retiring. “I am excited by the presence of so many young people. I am excited by the president’s speech. I am excited that I have lived to see this.”
She was not alone in sharing that perspective.
“It was a wonderful, beautiful experience to watch this event,” said Elizabeth Smart, 87, a retired maid who said she grew up never imagining she would see a Black man inaugurated as president, let alone for a second time.
“I’ve been around for a long time...in New York for years,” she said. “But I never dreamed that I would see something like this. This is something that I hope my grandchildren will never forget. I pray that this will mean something to them.”
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