Vice President Kamala Harris

Kamala Harris is sworn in as vice president by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor as her husband Doug Emhoff holds the Bible during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021.(Saul Loeb/Pool Photo via AP)

When Kamala Harris was sworn in as vice president on Wednesday, she became not just the first woman to hold the position, but also the first Black woman and Asian-American woman in that role.

“I’m rejoicing,” said Gwendolyn Purifoy, a Colony resident who was in the last graduating class at Colony High School before integration. She can remember voting when Blacks had to pay poll taxes or pass tests before being allowed to cast their vote. “They did all sorts of weird things to keep Black people from voting,” she said.

Seeing Harris take the oath of office for vice president seemed unreal. “I never thought I would live to see a Black male president and now to have to have a Black female VP, I’m really rejoicing,” she said.

In Harris, she sees a work ethic similar to what Purifoy’s mother instilled in her.

“I was always taught to dream big, but you’ve got to put legs on that dream,” said Purifoy. “My mother taught me that you could be anything if you work hard enough.”

She watched a recent story on the new vice president and saw Harris’ mother, Shyamela Gopala, said similar things to Harris. “She went through all the same steps,” said Purifoy.

“That’s what I want all young Black girls to realize today: They can do whatever they want to do if they put their minds to it. It takes work,” she said. “You’ve got to have a dream and go big. [Harris] had to fight for it; there was nothing given to her. Life is not easy and it’s even harder if you’re Black because you’ve got to fight for every opportunity.

“I would love to see more young women go for it like Kamala did,” she added.

As Harris took the oath of office, Cynthia Arrington was remembering her grandmothers’ experiences before the Civil Rights Act of 1965. She recalled one grandmother going to vote and how it was a big deal — dressed in Sunday best, cars washed and shined. “They were so proud because they were voters,” she said.

They’d talk, too, about those who couldn’t register or vote because they couldn’t pay the poll tax or pass tests like “guess how many jelly beans are in the jar.”

She thought of her other grandmother walking to her job in solidarity with the bus boycott. “She said, ‘If I walk now, my children won’t ever have to do it,’” said Arrington.

“I was proud for my grandmothers,” she said of watching the inauguration. “I shed tears for them today.”

She also reflected upon her own experiences as a Black woman who worked in the telecommunications industry for 32 years, taught at several colleges and retired last year from her job as Director of Adult Education at Wallace State Community College.

When she retired, she said, “not only did I live in a state run by a woman, I worked for an institution led by a woman. I felt validated.”

She felt that again today, along with a sense of pride.

“I was proud today,” she said. “I think of my daughter. My daughter has choices; she has choices I never had. Women of my generations were invited into boardrooms for pictures, but not invited for our intellect.

“I was so proud today for women, for Black women in particular,” she added. “It’s a great day. It’s a great day to feel like decency has been put back in the White House so everyone has a seat in the table. Today I felt like everybody matters.”

Amy Henderson can be reached at 256-734-2131 Ext. 216.

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