At Seattle’s Central Area Senior Center, people who gathered for bridge and lunch reflect on a president some thought they’d never live to see. They noted he faced fierce and sometimes personal attacks and “showed people how to be a president.”
Genevieve Benjamin cried when Barack Obama was elected president. “Now I can die,” Benjamin, 77, said she felt upon seeing an African American elected to the highest office in the land.
Eight years later, over lunch at the Central Area Senior Center, she said: “I’m glad he’s leaving.”
It’s not that Benjamin thinks Obama has done a bad job — quite the contrary. Rather, the retired social worker feels that leaving the White House will liberate the Obama family from ceaseless and sometimes personal attacks.
She noted that detractors have even called the first lady an ape. (“Ape in heels” was the term used by a government-funded West Virginia nonprofit director, subsequently fired.)
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“It hurts,” said Benjamin. “It really hurts.”
It was with mixed emotions that a number of African Americans congregating one afternoon at the Seattle senior center — a spacious, low-slung building overlooking Lake Washington — prepared to say goodbye to Obama and hello to a president who has pledged to undo much of his predecessor’s legacy. Many, like Benjamin, said they felt pained by the hostility Obama faced, weighing down the buoyancy of his initial victory. And yet they also spoke with deep pride.
“He showed people how to be a president,” said Josephine Stokes, gearing up for a game of bridge.
The 92-year-old Stokes, a former school librarian and the widow of Charles Stokes, King County’s first African-American legislator and district judge, has seen quite a few presidents in her time. She even met one, Richard Nixon, along with a parade of other famous people who came to town, including Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.
What she especially appreciated about Obama, she said, was his temperament. “He never showed anger,” she said of the man who famously had comedian Keegan-Michael Key serve as his “anger translator” during a White House Correspondents’ Dinnerner.
Some criticized the president as aloof. Stokes, though, sees virtue in Obama’s unwillingness to “sink to that level” of volatility, calling to mind his wife’s celebrated motto: “When they go low, we go high.”
And if they hadn’t gone high, some felt, it would have come back to bite them in a way it wouldn’t have had the Obamas been white.
“They were living in a fishbowl,” said Louis Drake, a semiretired insurance salesman and estate planner, checking email in a computer and activity room. Yet, despite that and three generations living in the White House, including Obama’s mother-in-law and two teenagers, there were no tantrums or even a “hint of mischievous behavior. You didn’t see the Secret Service rounding up his daughters after a drinking spree.”
While such impeccable behavior is rare enough, Drake said something else really set Obama apart. “He is a great orator,” Drake said. “He has stage presence.”
Drake remembered the president’s first victory speech in Grant Park, Chicago, when he voiced unbounded hope and a belief that this country is more than a “collection of red and blue states. We are, and always will be, the United States of America.”
“We’re going to be hearing that for at least the next century,” Drake said, noting that many in the crowd were moved to tears. “It was a sure sign of things to come — had Congress worked with him.”
“Really about race”
But Republicans wanted him to fail, Drake and others said, alluding to a remark by Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, now the Senate majority leader, that “the single most important thing” he and his colleagues wanted was for “President Obama to be a one-term president.”
Dian Ferguson, the senior center’s director, is among those who saw more than partisanship at work. “A lot of the obstacles he experienced were really about race,” she said, even if those responsible didn’t admit it.
“I thought we were making a lot of progress,” she said. Obama’s time in office, she said, had shown her she had been too optimistic.
And yet, despite it all, there was the Affordable Care Act, perhaps forever known as Obamacare. As far back as the 1940s, Harry Truman was trying to expand health-care coverage, noted Eddie Mae Tucker between bridge plays. Obama was the one who brought it home.
To Tucker, 72, Obama’s signature act demonstrated concern for “the least among us,” whether black or white. She saw that again in his unprecedented mass commutation of 200 sentences last August, most of them being served by nonviolentviolent drug offenders. He again granted clemency to hundreds of prisoners this week, including transgender Army leaker Chelsea Manning, and indicated he was not done yet.
Benjamin brought up another key part of Obama’s legacy: his executive order allowing immigrant “Dreamers,” brought here as children, to temporarily live and work here legally. She is an immigrant herself, from Guyana, who came here decades ago when her late husband was admitted to the University of Washington. Although now a citizen, she said she hated to see other immigrant families torn apart by deportation.
The Dreamer program might be dismantled under incoming President Trump, she knows, as the Affordable Care Act is expected to be. She said she also worried that attacks might be made on Social Security, despite Trump’s campaign promise not to cut benefits.
“I still have hope that President Trump might do good for the country,” she said. “Yet, I’m scared,” she added — not only because of what might happen to those programs but because of the racist rhetoric brought out by the divisive election.
Stokes was taking the long view. “We survived before and we’ll survive this,” she said.
She and some of her bridge companions had lived in Seattle when certain neighborhoods were off-limits to African Americans. Marie Brooks said that when she came here in 1960 to teach French in the public schools, she was told that an apartment was “just rented” every time she followed up on a “for rent” sign.
Brooks finally found an apartment with the help of the Seattle school district and later settled in Bellevue, where she taught for years.
She now worries about returning to the past when it comes to race relations.
So does Mattie Bailey, a retired City Light manager. And yet, she said: “No matter if things go haywire, we had something.”
“We have that memory, those of us who lived during this time. We’ll pass it down to our kids and grandkids. We had an African-American president.”