Chuck Taylors, pearls and plenty of pride

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Black women, girls celebrate Kamala Harris’s new role

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Jacquetta Fields and Adrienne Norris stood watching in their pearls and “Excuse Me I’m Speaking” t-shirts Wednesday as Kamala Harris took the oath of office to become the country’s first Black female vice president.

Dialed in via Facebook was Fields’ daughter Karin Petway, who, as Harris stood in the bright sun on the TV screen, let out a call — “Skee-Wee” — that seemed strange to the uninitiated but made perfect sense to the women.

Fields, Petway and Norris were part of five generations decked out in the jewelry symbolizing Harris’s affiliation with Alpha Kappa Alpha, the nation’s oldest Black sorority. They represented a tiny fraction of quite possibly millions of Black women celebrating something that AKA South Eastern Regional Director Mitzi Dease Paige should come as no surprise.

“We’re used to achieving things first,” Paige told WJHL. “For Kamala Harris to be installed today as the first African-American woman of color as vice president of the United States is not anything that surprised an Alpha Kappa Alpha.”

The women who founded AKA at Howard University on Jan. 15, 1908 were known as the “Twenty Pearls,” and the jewelry has retained a special place in the sorority’s history ever since.

Fields said she’s “elated” to have a woman of color in office. She spoke of her mother Thelma, who at 98 was also celebrating the moment.

Jacquetta Fields in a T-shirt designed by her niece, Adrienne Norris.

“She has been through all kinds of stuff that people just can’t imagine would happen to people,” Fields said. “With her education, her trying to get an education, her finally getting an education.”

Fields said the struggles continued during her own life, including a transition from segregated to integrated schools.

“Coming up through the ’70s, through the city school system here was hard,” she said. “There wasn’t a lot for us to do, so we had to make our own way. So to see somebody in office that looks like me is just a miracle.”

The AKA strain runs deeply through Fields — though she’s not a member — starting with her mother, who joined as a college graduate. The retired schoolteacher whose career took her from one-room segregated schools to Fairmont Elementary also donned pearls and a celebratory T-shirt for the occasion.

Thelma Norris said she never expected to live to see a Black woman as vice president.

“I thought it was great,” Norris said of witnessing a sorority sister take the oath of office for the second-most-powerful position in the U.S. “It was something I had never seen in my lifetime and I’ll never see again.”

Norris may not, but the same may not be true for her great-great-granddaughters.

From Norris through Jackie Fields, to Petway — herself an active AKA — all the way to Petway’s granddaughters, 3-year-old Isabella Kennedy-Petway and tiny Ava Chernenko-Petway — the pride over Harris’s ascendancy was self-evident.

It was echoed across town as Courtney Murphy prepared for her workday as a pediatric nurse. In addition to pearls, the active AKA member was sporting Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers — another homage to Harris, who wore the brand along the campaign trail.

“Just a sign of comfort for her and knowing that you know ‘hey, I’m a regular woman that can wear a power suit but also have some comfort on my feet.'”

Courtney Murphy

“She was walking miles and miles and talking to millions of people every day. So being able to be confident in not having to have on a nine-inch heel, not that that’s possible.”

Murphy is on the young side, soon to be 37, but said the election of a Black woman as vice president was something she hadn’t been able to imagine “in a bajillion wild dreams.”

“I’m just a little bit speechless, honestly, just excited by the emotions,” Murphy said, describing her day as “a roller coaster ride of positivity.”

Even though their son is just 5, Murphy and her husband spoke with him — on his level — about the significance of Harris’s achievement to him Tuesday night.

“I hope that he knows that the sky’s absolutely the limit, there’s no ceiling that needs to be smashed for him. There’s limitless opportunity for him in these great United States.”

The focus on the possible was even sharper for little Isabella Kennedy-Petway. She sported pearls and a T-shirt with four illustrations of little Black girls and the slogan “Ms. MVP (Madame Vice President) Looks Like Me!”

“The importance of Kamala Harris, bringing in diversity for others to see …. we did get an amazing glimpse of that … with President Obama,” Murphy said.

“But now, as a female, things that I’m sure lots of people thought they would never get to see we’re getting to experience (by) having a woman in that seat as well.”

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