BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — When President-elect Barack Obama takes the oath of office on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in January, he'll be standing on stone that was laid by more than 400 African slaves who helped build the structure from 1792 to 1800.
While few modern Americans are aware of the role that slaves played in the early days of the nation, Obama's inauguration will be a pivotal moment in the nation's centuries-old struggle to purge itself of the sins of slavery.
As the world digests the significance of the election of the nation's first African-American president, black historians are likewise trying to put Obama's accomplishment in the proper perspective.
In the 400-plus years since the first Africans were brought to Jamestown, Va., in 1619, many seminal events have shaped the black experience in this country.
Few, however, have the symbolic power of Obama's triumph.
"This is one of the most historic moments, if not the most historic moment in the history of this country," said 93-year-old John Hope Franklin, professor emeritus of history at Duke University.
Franklin, one of the nation's most accomplished historians, said Wednesday that he was confident that Obama could reach this historic milestone.
"I knew that it would come sooner or later," Franklin said. "I had the chance to meet and talk with him, so I was not shocked or terribly surprised because he is a winner."
Others weren't so confident. As race became a central issue in the campaign, many felt that Obama was doomed.
"I've taught for 35 years and I always tell my students, 'When race comes into play, logic has a way of exiting.' But I may have to revise that thinking after this," said Horace Huntley, a historian and the director of oral history at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. "Now it appears that logic may be overtaking the illogical. It appears there's a groundswell of sensibility."
What Obama's victory means for America's racial progress can be viewed through different prisms: That it happened in spite of lingering racism or because the country has evolved — or both.
Clarence Williams, a history professor at the University of California at Davis, was equally pessimistic about Obama's chances, saying he never thought he'd see a black president in his lifetime.
"Because I think of the United States, historically, as a deeply and pervasive racist country," Williams said. "It may have changed a bit in some ways, but in some ways it has not. And I have no shame about saying that to you."
Williams, who describes his feelings about America as "critical patriotism," said that he, too, was heartened by the widespread support that Obama got from nonblack voters who gravitated to his positive message.
"This notion of giving people hope is a very important thing," he said.
Nell Painter, a history professor emeritus at Princeton University, also was taken by the country's ability, in the end, to judge a black candidate based on his ideas rather than skin color.
"The idea that we can vote for a black person for president just really makes me feel good about the United States, given our history," Painter said. "It's like we're saying 'Look, we're not these bad old people any more. We're fair-minded.' It's a powerfully positive statement about the United States turning its back on its evil ways."
Williams warned, however, that Obama's victory doesn't mean that America is or ever will be colorblind. "But what it does is suggest we have taken another gigantic step forward with our racial problem," Williams said.
Painter, Williams and Huntley agreed that the end of slavery in 1865 was the major historic event for African-Americans "because it began the racial modernization of the state and ultimately led to blacks becoming full citizens and getting the right to vote under the 14th Amendment," Williams said.
He added that Obama's presidency is "probably of equal import to Brown v. the Board of Education, (which ruled that segregated school systems were unequal) and the Civil Rights Act of 1964," which outlawed segregation at work and in public places.
Painter said the civil rights struggle was also more important and that Obama's election was the probably the latest chapter of that ongoing movement.
"The breaking down of segregation made possible what we're seeing today in Barack Obama," Painter said. "This could not have happened in a segregated America. Too many white people would have found it impossible to vote for him."
To a generation of young blacks who never experienced overt racism, many can't fully appreciate the magnitude of Obama's victory. That's mainly the fault of black parents and schools that don't make civil rights history mandatory, Huntley said.
"We attempted to coddle our children and protect them from the harshness of the past rather than teach them what had taken place," Huntley said. As a result, many young blacks "have put a diesel engine on an oxcart and raced away from their past," Williams said.
Historians say that the lesson from this historic campaign is that, if nothing else, America retains a unique ability to reinvent itself on the fly. And whatever problems we face as a nation, they're not intractable.
Painter, remarked that Europe, which is much more predictable and politically stable, doesn't share that quality, Painter said.
"You can go to bed in Europe and wake up fully secure that the earth didn't move while you slept," Painter said. "You can't do that in the United States. The earth does move while you sleep."
ON THE WEB
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2008