At Roxbury inaugural gala, local residents celebrate 'incredible moment'

Talia Whyte | 1/21/2009, 2:28 p.m.

State Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz speaks to attendees at the community inaugural celebration held Tuesday night at Hibernian Hall in Roxbury's Dudley Square. Boston was abuzz on Tuesday, as residents celebrated at public gatherings or congregated around TVs, radios and computers to follow the festivities attended by millions in Washington, D.C., then kept celebrating into the night. (Talia Whyte photo)

They might not have been able to make it all the way to the nation’s capital, but residents of Boston's Wards 11 and 19 still danced Tuesday night away at a community gala held at Hibernian Hall in Dudley Square to celebrate the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

“I couldn’t go to D.C., so I think it was nice to be around other people still in Boston who are just as happy as me,” said Heather Ross of Jamaica Plain. “This has just been an emotional day for me.”

Ross was far from alone. Boston was abuzz on Tuesday, as residents celebrated at public gatherings or congregated around TVs, radios and computers to follow the festivities attended by millions in Washington, D.C. The significance of Obama’s inauguration as the first black president holds a special place in their hearts of many local residents of color.

“This was a great day for me,” said Larry Woo of Roxbury. “My mother was a sharecropper in Alabama. She would have been so happy today for Barack!”

Malden resident Alice Alisme watched Obama take the oath of office with her colleagues from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 615. As a Haitian immigrant, Alisme said she hopes that Obama’s background and political rise will restore America’s image as a multicultural melting pot.

“He broke the status quo,” she said. “[Many] years from now, I can say to my grandchildren that I was a part of this.”

The historical focus was a topic of conversation at the Hibernian Hall gala, as well as at Northeastern University’s John D. O’Bryant African American Institute. That’s where Elmer Freeman, the executive director of the Center for Community Health Education, Research and Service at Northeastern and a member of the Ward 19 Democratic Committee, watched the inauguration.

Freeman reminisced about watching James Brown’s historic performance at the Boston Garden after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968. To be here 40 years later, watching with Northeastern students as a black man became president, was “an incredible moment,” he said.

Like many attendees at the gala, Ross and Freeman both said they wanted President Obama to hit the ground running upon taking office, with the economic downturn and the nation’s health care system topping the list of tough topics to tackle.

Also in attendance at Hibernian Hall: Sonia Chang-Díaz, who took the oath of office earlier this month to officially replace embattled predecessor Dianne Wilkerson as the state senator representing the Second Suffolk District. Many at the gala said they viewed Chang-Díaz as the future of multicultural leadership in Boston.

The newly minted senator filed 10 pieces of legislation last Friday and has co-sponsored six more with House and Senate colleagues. Two of the bills deal with foreclosures and CORI reform, she said, both pressing issues for her Second Suffolk constituency.

As a new legislator, Chang-Díaz said she would like to build alliances with all groups in the community, and that she doesn’t hold any grudges against those who didn’t support her campaign. Instead, she said, she hopes to see residents inspired by Obama’s spirit continue to help create stronger communities.

“Now that the election is over, people should still stay involved,” she said. “You can be the change you want to see.”