The fireworks started around 11 p.m., seconds after the tears. The moment Senator Barack Obama was announced as President-elect Obama, dozens of supporters spilled out of the Queens for Obama grassroots headquarters in Jamaica to join a group of revelers who had been dancing and chanting for over an hour - since their candidate had been projected to win Pennsylvania and Ohio.
The headquarters - a narrow storefront sandwiched between a deli and a pizza shop on Farmers Boulevard near the corner of 136th Avenue - was magnetic. After West Coast polls closed and all networks declared Obama the victor, many people remained inside, fixated on pundits that delivered the news they had all been waiting, hoping, and praying to hear. Others fled to the street, screaming, crying, hugging and kissing.
Drivers stopped their cars at green lights and pounded their horns. Music blasted from an SUV parked on the corner while an emcee energized the crowd over a public address system. Buses with weary commuters making their way home slowed down and opened their doors to reveal dancing drivers, pumping fists. This might have been the first time the people of Queens took to the streets to partake in the “Electric Slide.”
When it was all still unfolding, George Johnson, a 62-year-old Jamaica resident, rolled up on a bicycle bedecked in an Obama hat, shirt and buttons.
“I wanted to come down to help my fellow supporters celebrate,” Johnson said. “I don’t think there are words. I don’t think there are words, but the reality is finally coming to light.”
Johnson had no bike lock but he was not worried, and neither was anybody else.
“Nah, they ain’t gonna steal it,” said a young man, making his way into the office, which was hot and sticky with around 50 supporters. The man shook his head and smiled. “Tonight’s Obama’s night.”
But in the predominantly black neighborhood of Jamaica with one of the highest percentages of blacks in all of New York City, it was clear the night was not just Obama’s.
Earlier in the evening, the crowd applauded as a television commentator told viewers that Obama had received 96 percent of the black vote. “Yes!” a woman shouted. “We’re doing our thing!”
Even before Obama became President-elect, the fact that the mostly black supporters who had spent so much time at the headquarters simply had a major party candidate who shared their racial identity was unbelievable for some.
“When I grew up and I started to learn about our black leaders in our community, I never thought that from the amazement I had about a black Councilman, the amazement I received from having a black mayor - you know, I never thought it would grow to this height,” said Larry Love, who has lived in Jamaica since 1963, back when the neighborhood was mostly white.
“For the rest of our life, we will remember this day. And our kids, they will grow up understanding that history was made today, on this day,” he said.
Laverne White, 74, has been in Southeast Queens for 65 years. A retired nurse educator, White used her outreach skills to register and teach voters throughout the campaign season. She personally handed out over 2,000 registration forms and created her own informational signs and voting brochures, paying for everything out of pocket.
Driving to a polling station earlier in the day - hours before she returned to the Jamaica headquarters with a cake bearing Obama’s likeness - White spoke of the imminence of an Obama victory.
“He gave his personal best,” she said. “And I feel that’s all we need to do is to give our personal best for him. We have to do the work,” she said matter-of-factly. “Although he’s the President, he is relying on each person to do what they know they need to do as a citizen to make this a better community, a better nation and a better world.”
Fittingly, White found herself at an election watch party that night surrounded by a crowd of energized activists, many of whom had just returned from a final day in Pennsylvania, urging voters to make it to the polls. In fact, when she returned from Philadelphia, the supporters chanted for Queens for Obama organizer Bonty Defoe almost as loud as they shouted for Obama.
“I’m speechless,” Defoe said, smiling. “We went down and had an impromptu party, in the street, literally.” Exhausted but ecstatic, Defoe said she looked forward to cracking open a bottle of wine waiting for her at home.
“Aw, I feel wonderful,” said Donovan Richards, the get-out-the-vote organizer for Queens for Obama and the district manager for Councilmember James Sanders, an early supporter of Obama’s Presidential run. Richards was of out of breath from celebrating in the street. “I feel we pulled the lever for all of our ancestors, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Emmett Till, all of those people who died for us to vote - Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks….” he said, flush with emotion.
Sanders, on the phone from Ohio where he had campaigned for Obama up until polls closed, said his enthusiasm and confidence in his candidate never wavered - even two years ago in New York City, which, at the time, was overwhelmingly Hillary Country.
“I simply saw somebody whose judgment was necessary to lead the U.S.,” said Sanders, enthralled with Obama’s “audacity of hope, audacity of a new change, a new direction for America.”
“Absoultely, we had to do it,” he said, of electing the first black president this country has ever seen. “We needed a whole different song for Americans to sing.”
On this night, in this section of Queens, the song went a little something like this: “O-bam-a! O-bam-a! O-bam-a” and it echoed throughout the world.