This story was written by Chrissy DiNicola, The Duke Chronicle
Vernon Dunnegan took a drag on his cigarette and released words into the cold night air outside Alpine Bagels with puffs of pale grey smoke.
"I never thought I'd live to see a black president," he said. "Never."
"Hope," a term many currently consider synonymous with "Obama" extends beyond politics as more than a campaign slogan, more than a fleeting feeling for Dunnegan, a black chef at the Great Hall. And he is not alone.
Twenty years ago, Dunnegan, a Durham native, graduated from high school and joined the U.S. Army. He said he always had pride in his country, but this past Election Day, he experienced a new kind of pride, with the victory of the nation's first black president-elect, Barack Obama.
Blacks finally have a true voice, he said.
"Now black youth see anything is possible," Dunnegan added. "The world can be conquered."
Ben Reese, Duke University Vice President for Institutional Equity, said he too did not expect a black president during his lifetime. Reese, who has personally struggled with discrimination, said Obama's election was an important step for all Americans toward a society that judges people based on merit alone.
Reese spent election night with both blacks and whites. He described this atmosphere as particularly meaningful, adding that everyone shared the announcement of the president-elect as a "watershed moment." When Obama's win was proclaimed, he was moved to the verge of tears, Reese said.
"Unlike the sixties, when I was watching significant events for black people with African Americans, this year I was in a room with people from all different backgrounds," he said. "And we were watching the election as an American event."
Reese added, nevertheless, that there remains a question of whether Americans of all races will see Obama's election as a sign that society has reached complete equality.
"There is still significant work to be done for gender equality, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality," he said. "And there is certainly still the issue of race equity."
Despite the issues Reese presents, Obama's election has created space for fresh conversation about race, said Michaeline Crichlow, associate professor of African and African American studies.
Crichlow said the election has spurred a rebirth of the American principles she remembers from her childhood.
She recalled that when she was growing up in the Caribbean, she developed positive feelings toward Americans when her older sisters and brothers brought American members of the Peace Corps home during Christmas time.
"[The election] has reawakened this goodness of the country and the sympathetic ways it views the rest of the world," Crichlow said. "But maybe for the youth, the election is creating a new atmosphere."
Students also said they feel the weight of this moment in history.
Senior Brandon Roane, president of the Black Student Alliance, said a minority American president is a symbol that the United States is truly a land of opportunity. The fact that Obama grew up modestly with his grandmother and "came full circle" to earn America's highest government office shows the American Dream is still alive and well, he said.
"There is no position in the world as highly scrutinized as the presidency. Having a black man in that position is a very powerful statement," Roane added. "Now an eighth grader watching television is thinking 'I too can achieve what [Obama] did.'"
And the enthusiasm generated by Obama does not dissipate beyond black communities.
Elba Hernandez, who is Puerto Rican and a manager at The Loo, said she has been waiting for a black president since Martin Luther King Jr. led the Civil Rights Movement. The hope King ignited in her eight-year-old heart is precisely what she sees in her daughter now, she said.
"[My daughter], a college student, feels protected, like she's going to be supported, like [Obama] is going to back up her dreams, even if mom and dad struggle.... Obama's struggles are our struggles," Hernandez said.
She added that she could envision herself one day cheering on a Hispanic president.
Dunnegan said he is most excited about the effects a black president will have on youth, noting that he thinks young black men are holding their heads higher.
"I have two little nieces, and now I can tell them, 'Yeah, you can be president,'" Dunnegan said. "I would love to see one of them grow up to be the first woman president."