ROBBINS, N.C. (AP) - On the day of the inauguration, Jackie Covington kept thinking about her grandparents and wished they could see the first Black and South Asian woman be sworn in as vice president of the United States.
With only a seventh-grade education, Covington’s grandparents taught her the value of hard work and serving her community and were always proud of her accomplishments. She thinks Harris’ family must feel the same way.
“I got my Ph.D. for my grandparents,” Covington said. “And I thought, as a little girl, did she ever have any idea that one day she would be in the White House? I kept thinking about what she must be thinking to be the first.”
Though there is more work to be done in rural communities, Harris being sworn in Jan. 20 was a joyous moment for many women who have long been fighting to break through thick, glass ceilings in politics, their workplaces and communities. For some Black women in rural North Carolina, Harris’ inauguration was a historic moment that goes beyond comparison. They see her win and leadership as a sign that change is near and it will come to rural America, too.
“It was almost indescribable watching the inauguration,” said Covington, a native of Robbins and a retired high school counselor. “It was just like America being born again, after the last four years.”
Many view Harris, a native of Oakland, California, as a representation of themselves and of the many women of color they know.
“Being able to see a Black woman being elected into the vice presidency is something that we have never, ever seen before. Ever. It’s not even something I can compare it to,” said Shaquilla Jones, a 26-year-old social worker from Goldsboro. “It spoke to so many things.”
Jones playfully calls Harris “Soror Kamala,” as they are both members of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., a Black sorority that began at Howard University, where Harris attended. She says Harris has given her new encouragement to achieve her own goals.
“If I set my mind to something, I can truly do it,” Jones said. “No matter what a man says, no matter what history says, if I set my mind to this, I can do it.”
A Black and South Asian woman serving in this role brought a sense of peace and calmness for Rose Highland-Sharpe, a native of Moore County.
She was glued to the television to watch the whole inauguration, especially to be sure everything went as planned.
“First of all, I wanted to make sure the (former) president got on that plane,” Highland-Sharpe said, speaking of watching former President Donald Trump’s farewell ceremony. “I wanted to make sure he got on that plane, if not I was gonna have someone to get me up there to D.C.!”
Highland-Sharpe said she is still reeling from the thrill of watching the first Black president, Barack Obama, win in 2008 and again in 2012. She grew up in rural communities like Pinehurst and knows what it is like not to see Black people in positions of leadership most of her life. When she was a student at UNC-Chapel Hill in the early ’80s, a group of white students called her a racial slur.
“That was truly something I never thought I would see in my lifetime,” Highland-Sharpe said of Obama’s elections. “With Vice President Harris, there is hope for little girls and hope for African-American girls, hope for Asian girls that you can grow up and you can run for office. I hope they do run for office.”
When Harris accepted the nomination for vice president, she used the moment to talk about the “women who fought and sacrificed so much for equality, liberty and justice for all.” She praised Black women who are “too often overlooked, but so often prove that they are the backbone of our democracy. I stand on their shoulders.”
Harris was one of only two Black women, after Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, ever to serve in the U.S. Senate in 232 years.
Before the election, Harris frequently visited North Carolina including Goldsboro and Fayetteville to talk to voters about the issues the Biden-Harris administration hopes to address, including COVID-19 and job insecurity.
Seeing Harris visit rural communities was special to Jones who feels Harris, because of her race and background, will understand the issues many women in rural places deal with.
“For me to see that support is knowing that I have someone that will advocate for me,” Jones said. “For rural areas, that’s a lot of times our issue, that we don’t have advocates that can actually attest to what is going on, what has happened, and I think that now with her being in this position I feel that attention will be brought to those areas.”
Tammie Hollingsworth works in healthcare in Lumberton and hopes Harris remembers “where she comes from.”
“I hope she is able to stay humble and hope that she continues to stay for the people,” Hollingsworth said. “We just had a president that was way out there, so we just hope to find someone who is for everyone, not just one little section.”
Hollingsworth, a native of Raeford, worked at the polls during the presidential election and is a big supporter of political advancement for Black and minority residents. She is concerned about the future of healthcare and education and made sure she knew where candidates, including Harris, stood on these matters.
“In small counties, we care about healthcare. We care about our education,” Hollingsworth said. “I paid attention to what they said about the schools, about funding our systems. I paid attention to the governor race, as well.”
Aggie Rogers also focused on what the Biden-Harris campaign said about healthcare in rural areas. She has a first-hand account of how COVID-19 has affected families in Robeson County working as an administrative assistant at a funeral home. As of late, more than 170 people had died from the virus in Robeson County.
“We’ve lost a lot of people. I feel for these families and I see what they’re going through. I think she (Harris) will be the advocate for us,” Rogers said. “I think her leadership is going to be excellent, not just because of who she is and what we see, but her background, her education, and most importantly, to me, she is a female.”
Rogers believes that more representation for women is integral to the advancement of communities. She retired from the N.C. Cooperative Extension services in Wake County before working in the Colvin Funeral Home. Most of her career has been centered around encouraging children to set and reach goals for themselves, but she found herself inspired to do even more because of Harris.
“There’s a lot of work to be done, and she just inspired me to just do a little bit more and push and inspire other people to get off the couch and do more,” Rogers said.
Bridget Cotton is currently serving as the only woman and youngest person to be elected to the town council in Taylortown in Moore County. She said her heart “fluttered with great joy” to see the first ethnic woman to be sworn in as vice president.
“If Martin Luther King was still here he would say, ‘we have overcome,’” said Cotton. “It really shows people, especially young Black and ethnic women, that not only can we be stay-at-home moms, wives, and caretakers of our home and families, but we can also take care and nurture our nation.”
Cotton says seeing women like Harris in positions of power is important for Black people because of the effects slavery has had on the country.
“It was always instilled in our minds since slavery that the only things that we were good for is to serve the white man by cooking, cleaning, being the caretakers of their children while ours were ripped away from us,” Cotton said. “Now to see a Black woman like me rise up in power does boost our self-esteem and makes us be more determined to conquer whatever goals we have in life.”
As a small-business owner in rural North Carolina, she said she thinks Harris’ leadership will bring hope to farmers, small mom-and-pop businesses and small towns.
“A lot of rural America feels left out and not as valued as the urban areas and bigger cities,” Cotton said. “If I could tell VP Harris something about rural life in North Carolina it’s, please don’t forget about us little people. Reach back up and help us up. We may be small but we are mighty; we have been forgotten.”
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