HIGH POINT — The idea that Vice President-elect Kamala Harris takes the oath of office this week seems incomprehensible to Frances Walls when she thinks back to her painful experiences as a Black woman living through the humiliation of segregation.
Boarding a city bus and going to the back to find a seat, or standing if all the seats were occupied by white passengers. Getting a drink of water from a fountain marked “Colored” or using a public restroom branded with the same word. Hearing a litany of racially charged insults and knowing you couldn’t respond without facing retribution.
Now 82 years old, Walls said she couldn’t have imagined when she was a teenager that a Black woman would serve in any elected office, let alone vice president of the United States. The retired warehouse worker from High Point said she will cherish the image when she watches Harris take the oath of office Wednesday with President-elect Joe Biden during the inauguration at the Capitol.
“She has made history,” Walls told The High Point Enterprise.
America broke one barrier 12 years ago when President Barack Obama became the first Black chief executive of the nation. Now the country marks another political, social and cultural milestone with Harris becoming the first woman, as well as the first African American, to hold the nation’s second-highest office.
Rudolphia Carter Cunningham of High Point said when she was a teenager, she couldn’t have foreseen a day when women and men sharing her skin color would advance to the highest elected offices in the land.
Cunningham, 85, a retired clerical worker, retains vivid memories of the slights and injustices that she and other Black people endured during segregation.
“Back then it was known that we had a place, and that’s where we would be,” she said. “All we wanted was to be able to do — don’t look at my color. See me as an individual and give me an opportunity to go after whatever I desire to do.”
She has lived to witness an America that she couldn’t have envisioned when she was younger.
“I see an America today I thought I’d never see in my lifetime,” Walls said.
African American women have contributed to the advancement of civil rights dating back to the late 19th century, said Paul Ringel, associate professor of history at High Point University. The National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, which was formed in 1896, gave African American women an opportunity to organize, Ringel told The Enterprise.
African American women formed some of the first political networks that evolved over the decades into movements for racial justice, he said.
“Black women have been central to the freedom struggle for Black Americans and often publicly underappreciated,” the professor said.
African American women served critical roles at each stage of the civil rights movement through the 20th century, which led to black women entering electoral politics, he said. The election of Harris as vice president “is another barrier broken,” Ringel said.
The political and social advancement symbolized by Harris has been overshadowed the past week and a half by the riots at the Capitol. But Cunningham hopes and prays that on Wednesday the accomplishment of Harris will gain the notice it deserves.
“Her presence will make a big difference,” Cunningham said.
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