Barack and My Uncle Fred

Barack Obama visited the White House yesterday. My uncle, another first, would have been proud.

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E. Frederic Morrow with President Eisenhower.

Barack Obama went to the White House Monday to begin the transition to his presidency. He arrived, protected by the Secret Service, in a chauffeured limousine, to enter the front gate as the president-elect of the United States of America. Yes, this does confirm that Nov. 4, 2008 really did happen. A black man did garner enough white votes in this country, its long history of racism and discrimination notwithstanding, to win the presidency. He even did better among white voters in general than the last two white Democratic candidates for the presidency. Damn!

I couldn't help thinking about my uncle, E. Frederic Morrow, who was the first African American to serve on the White House staff in the executive office of President Dwight D. Eisenhower from 1955 to 1960. Among other achievements, in 1958 he was instrumental in arranging the historic meeting between Eisenhower and black leaders A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Lester B. Granger and Martin Luther King Jr. on June 23, 1958.

Those were trying times for a black staffer in a White House that was, at best, ambivalent about civil rights. My uncle often found himself caught in the middle, between white officials resistant to his progressive advice and black Americans quick to call him an "Uncle Tom" if they could see no immediate results. But Uncle Fred was no stranger to struggle. In the Urban League and the NAACP, he risked his life to fight for civil rights in the 1930s South and then served as an army officer during World War II.

In those days, the only African Americans expected in the White House were servants; the presence of any other black Americans was a rarity. I was lucky. I not only visited the White House but met Eisenhower in person because Uncle Fred arranged it. Because of that, I still "like Ike"; his Republican successors, however, have gone from bad to worse.

I can't count the numerous encounters Uncle Fred had with people who could not believe that he was part of Eisenhower's entourage and staff. Blacks weren't even allowed to guard the president back then; all we could do was cook and clean the big house.

And now Barack Obama will be the president. I saw him win the election on Nov. 4, and I saw him enter the White House on Nov. 10, the day before Armistice Day.

Armistice Day makes me—I'm a military historian—think of all those African-American men and women who have served this country so loyally in all its wars, with the hope that their sacrifice might earn their race the equality it has long merited. Uncle Fred's youngest brother, my Uncle William, was an infantry officer in the North African and Italian campaigns. Each and every time he and other black veterans returned, white Americans thwarted their aspirations to equality, often brutally, at the end of a lynching rope or in a race riot. Now a black man will be the commander in chief of the U.S. Armed Forces. I believe that some white folks who have always lauded their own patriotic loyalty to the president, the commander in chief and denigrated that of minorities, have taken it for granted that the president and commander in chief would be white. Now we'll all have the chance to see if they're really American patriots.

I thought of Uncle Fred on Election Night and of his fears later in life that the United States seemed incapable of surmounting white racism. The election of Ronald Reagan was, for him, the last straw, as the Republican Party, in his words "had nothing more to do for the Negro and he [Fred] would have nothing more to do with the GOP."

The election of Barack Obama stunned and elated me. Uncle Fred and my father, John Sr., an ambassador in the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations and also a life-long fighter for civil rights, in their most optimistic moments, never imagined the election of an African American to the American presidency; neither did I.

They and my other ancestors may be dead, but our ancestors live on in us, and I felt their presence powerfully on Nov. 4. They were very much alive that night.

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