As President-elect Barack Obama gave his victory speech on the big screen at Arnellia’s, the bar’s owner and namesake, Arnellia Allen, sat at her favorite perch – on a stool near the cash register. Flanked by a few friends and family, the normally reserved Allen wore a wide grin and took up the packed bar’s chant of “Obama” as the television beamed images of America’s new first family to the world.
“I’m in shock,” said the 60-something Allen. “I’m very excited, but it’s a little hard to believe. I felt like this day would come one day, but I never thought I’d live to see it.”
Arnellia’s is St. Paul’s oldest African-American-owned business, and its clientele is largely black. Tuesday, a crowd of 20-something hip-hop fans gathered at the club to hear live crews throw down as older Arnellia’s regulars celebrated the historic election near the flat-screen in the corner with drinks, catfish, and chicken wings.
‘I feel like it’s a miracle’
“I totally did not believe that I would see a black man as president of the United States,” said St. Paul resident Michelle Bowie. “It’s a miracle, almost. It feels like a miracle. I’m very proud of the whole Democratic Party. It feels like everybody is coming together, and that makes me very happy.”
Across the bar, music promoters Ronald and Joyce Ligon of Minneapolis wore matching Obama T-shirts and danced jubilantly to the pummeling beats.
“It feels like a new beginning for everybody,” said Ronald. “It’s not just for one race. Let me put it this way: I believe this is an opening to heaven.”
“I’m 42 years old, this is my first time voting, and this is just a historic moment for me,” said Joyce.
In many ways, it was just another night at Arnellia’s. People drank and danced and played it cool, but underneath the business-as-usual clubbing vibe simmered the knowledge that America had elected its first African-American president.
‘Tonight is history night’
“There’s no other night like this night. Tonight is history night,” said Bowie.
“It feels like the first time I had sex, that’s how excited I am,” said Shawn Suggs, 24. “I feel like I can do anything.”
“It’s what’s up, you know what I’m saying? It’s about time, it’s overdue,” said a huge 22-year-old man who was bellied up to the bar and, inspired by Joe the Plumber, wanted only to be identified as Joe the Hustler. He sat next to Kimberly Johnson, a St. Paul child-care worker. The two wore matching black T-shirts emblazoned with photos of Obama, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the word “Legacy.”
“This man right here was killed,” said Johnson, pointing to the picture of King. “I was born in 1968, the year he was assassinated. We were just being able to use white public restrooms around then. We’ve come a long way. A long way.”
That sentiment wasn’t lost on 39-year-old forklift operator David Hall, who sported a beatific expression on his face and an “I Voted” sticker on his chest.
‘This means something to my kids’
“I didn’t vote for [Obama] because he was black, I voted for him because he would be the best president,” said Hall. “I served in the military. I was in the Army. I’m the quartermaster over at the local VFW. I’ve got a beautiful family, my wife’s wonderful, and this means something to my kids. It’s about our future. …
“Our community, we’re used to the legal system letting us down,” he said. “I’m used to [things] going wrong. I distrust the system so much, but this is the first time I’ve seen the system work in my life, and I’m 40 years old. That’s harsh, but it’s true. It’s a relief. It’s a relief to say, ‘Finally. Something right happened.’ But not right just for me, for everybody.”
As the night wore on and the club filled with more revelers, music promoter Joyce Ligon collared a reporter and wanted to relay some more information:
“We’re bringing a tribute to Stevie Wonder here, Feb. 28, right here at Arnellia’s.”
On cue, from the big screen televising the festivities from Grant Park in Chicago, came the unmistakable strains of Obama’s campaign song: Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.”