Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Philly Black voters reflect on an election week when ‘history was made’

The Inquirer talked to over a dozen Black voters in Philadelphia about election week, their outlook on the next four years, and the significance of Kamala Harris’ ascension to the White House.

Bernyce Mills-DeVaughn is photographed at her home in Philadelphia.
Bernyce Mills-DeVaughn is photographed at her home in Philadelphia.Read moreJose F. Moreno

Beneath the afternoon sun in 2017, Steffie Saunders stood at the corner of 22nd and Snyder and encouraged Black residents to vote in an upcoming Pennsylvania primary election.

She held pamphlets in one hand, beckoned with the other, and paced the block for hours. She was spotted by the neighborhood’s ward leader and was invited to join a leadership committee to assist with increasing voter awareness. Because she’s had experience in community organizing in years past, she accepted.

This year, “I harassed everyone I knew to make sure they were voting,” Saunders, 57, said. “I wanted to go the extra mile because this election is so important for us.”

In 2016, Donald Trump won the state by 44,000 votes — less than one percentage point. And this year, the nation once again turned its attention to the Keystone State as the results from 3,000 Philadelphia mail ballots gave Joe Biden enough of a margin for news organizations to call Pennsylvania, and thus the race. The vast majority of the mail-in ballots were from registered Democrats.

» READ MORE: Trump’s voter fraud lawsuits are not about contradicting the will of all the people — just the Black ones | Solomon Jones

Philadelphia’s Black residents make up nearly 44% of the city’s total population and exit polls suggest 87% of Black voters favored Biden nationally. In his victory speech on Nov. 7 in Wilmington, Biden pounded the lectern while acknowledging the support of Black voters.

“You’ve always had my back, and I’ll have yours,” he said.

The Inquirer talked to more than a dozen Black voters in Philadelphia about election week, their outlook on the next four years, the significance of Kamala Harris' ascension to the White House, and the issues they’re hoping the Biden administration will address.

For months, they prepared.

Saunders, who works in information technology, mailed her ballot during the first week of October. She’s voted in every presidential election since she’s been of age, and that’s “E-V-E-R-Y with capital letters,” she said.

Persuading those in her community to register to vote was sometimes difficult. “I had a hard, hard fight with some people, but I did change some minds,” Saunders said.

Bob Toomer, a 58-year-old SEPTA worker, didn’t need persuading.

“Biden was my first choice,” he said. “He’s the person I voted for in the Democratic primary. He was the person I believe that had the experience and the plans to get over this difficult time that we’re experiencing now.”

» READ MORE: ‘Look at us now’: Philly women, and especially Black women, celebrate Kamala Harris’ election to America’s second-highest office

When Biden announced Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate, “I was pleasantly surprised,” Toomer said. “It was a gutsy call and it could’ve affected him negatively because I know that some people have a problem with minority women in power.”

“I think [Trump] made more people feel comfortable with saying whatever they want,” he said. “There’s been a noticeable difference these last few years.”

On Election Day, they voted.

Election Day was a day of pain and pride for Nyesha Brooks, 35, of Point Breeze. Since 2018, she has suffered from fibromyalgia, a disorder that causes musculoskeletal pain that prevents her from walking, standing, or moving for extended periods. She often experiences numbness in her hands and feet and stabbing pain in her lower back.

When Brooks arrived at her polling place around 9 a.m., she inched to the entrance, thankful there was no line. Poll workers inspirited Brooks' stride as she approached the voting booth, and when she emerged, “I felt powerful," she said. After voting, Brooks sat in a nearby chair to manage her pain. Brooks voted in person instead of using a mail-in ballot because, to her, voting on Election Day felt momentous.

Although she voted for Biden, Brooks didn’t have a strong preference. “Anybody over Trump had my vote,” she said.

Along with taming the coronavirus pandemic, Brooks believes the Biden administration should prioritize curbing gun violence. “I have a 16-year-old son, so it scares me,” she said. “I have to tell my son every day that he can’t go out because it’s that bad.”

Across town in West Philadelphia, a poll worker handed activist Shakira King a disposable glove to wear while making her selections on the voting machine on Election Day. After she finished, “I wasn’t relieved,” King, 28, said.

Neither Biden nor Harris was King’s ideal candidate and voting for anyone less than ideal reminded her of how she felt in the 2016 presidential election. “I didn’t feel moved to vote for Hillary Clinton," King said. “I didn’t think she would make good on the social justice end.”

King had supported Sen. Elizabeth Warren during her presidential bid because of her policies around Medicare for All. Harris' background as a former prosecutor and state attorney general tempered King’s enthusiasm.

She voted for Biden, but said, “It doesn’t matter what kind of history [Harris] makes, because she has some really questionable politics that don’t allow me to root for her."

For three days, they waited.

It’s been more than 55 years since Bernyce Mills-DeVaughn participated in a civil rights demonstration. Mills-DeVaughn was mentored by the venerable activist Cecil B. Moore, and was a member of the Freedom Fighters, a group of Philly-based activists.

The 72-year-old from East Mount Airy made sure to vote early. And though she was skeptical of mail-in voting, a confirmation email from the state on Oct. 8 gave her confidence.

» READ MORE: Black Philadelphians who recall the 1960s assess race relations in a still-divided country

Mills-DeVaughn, a fashion model and retired pharmaceutical worker, said she’s pleased to see so many people under the age of 35 participating in American democracy. On Nov. 5, Mills-DeVaughn received a text message from fellow Freedom Fighter Kenneth Salaam that moved her to tears.

“He sent me a message that said, ‘If it were not for what you and the other sisters did, we would not have a Kamala Harris,’” she said. “I kept reading it and I had to digest it. All I could do was thank him because I just didn’t have the words to say more.”

Mills-DeVaughn said that she did have some concerns about Harris' prosecutorial record, but “I feel proud that she’s a woman and that she was chosen to stand in that place.”

Mike Sanford, 32, of Mount Airy, received the email confirming receipt of his vote on Oct. 11. After Election Day, he checked for updates whenever he found a free moment and phoned his grandmother in Glassboro, Gloucester County, to talk.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia progressives fought to elect a candidate they didn’t like. They’re already organizing to move Joe Biden left.

“The tension was palpable, and everywhere you looked, everything you watched, every social media post and every conversation and group chat was about the election,” Sanford said. “It was inescapable and overwhelming.”

Sanford, a seventh-grade English teacher, says he’s not surprised that Trump had so much support in this election despite being impeached, his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and racist rhetoric. “It is what it is."

But Sanford is proud that a woman of color will be the next vice president of the United States.

“It’s beautiful to see someone who looks like my mom, who looks like my aunt,” running for office, he said of Harris. “Whether you agree with it or not, history was made. I choose to celebrate that."

On Saturday, they rejoiced.

When CNN announced Biden as the winner of the election last Saturday, Elaine Sanford of Glassboro immediately called her grandson, Mike, who lives in Philadelphia. They had been keeping each other abreast of election news.

“The outcome of the election meant so much to me,” Elaine Sanford said. “It was like a weight was lifted off of me because it’s been so sad to see America in such turmoil and so divided. I’m 72 years old and never in my life seen such a thing. It seemed like we were going backward for a while."

» READ MORE: Philadelphians cheer in the streets as Joe Biden wins the presidency

Freelance photographer Meredith Edlow was at her South Philadelphia home when Biden was called president-elect. Outside, drivers blew their horns, neighbors cheered and beat frying pans with wooden spoons. As one car drove by, she heard the internet-famous remix, “You About to Lose Yo Job.”

She changed into more durable clothes, grabbed her Canon SLR camera, her smartphone, and a mask. She hopped on her bicycle and beelined to South Broad Street. For hours, Edlow captured photos and video footage of Philadelphians celebrating.

At one point, she noticed Jericka Duncan of CBS News prepping for a live segment.

“She was fully poised and standing on this box so they could get a good shot of City Hall in the background," Edlow, 39, said. “She really embodied everything I feel like a lot of Black women that are covering the 2020 election are feeling: It’s very tiring. But there’s always just one more thing you have to do before you can get peace, and it usually comes after everyone else’s peace.”

» READ MORE: White people can’t give in to Black Lives Matter fatigue. We must keep fighting. | Opinion

Around 8 p.m., Yesseh Furaha-Ali of Upper Darby headed to Rittenhouse Square, where he was scheduled to perform. Furaha-Ali, 24, is a saxophonist in the Philly-based brass band Snack Time. When he arrived to meet his bandmates, dozens of people had already gathered.

“I haven’t felt that much of a release from the city since the Eagles won the Super Bowl [in 2018],” he said. "It was just something that we desperately needed and it was worth the wait.”

Until at least 11 p.m., Rittenhouse Square was transformed into a jamboree. The band performed Beyoncé's “Crazy in Love,” Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing),” and Steam’s 1969 hit “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye,” which the crowd sang along and swayed to.

Furaha-Ali didn’t vote in the 2016 presidential election. But now, he “couldn’t take for granted the power of being heard. A Black man voting? That’s one of the most powerful tools we can use.”