Obama, America’s first Black president, puts the spotlight on others with presidential center

EXCLUSIVE: For Black History Month, theGrio takes a look at former President Barack Obama's upcoming presidential library being constructed in Chicago's south side.

A U.S. presidential library typically stands as a marker of time for a commander and chief and his years of service inside the Oval Office. However, a new library being constructed on the south side of Chicago for America’s first Black president Barack Obama is different.

The Obama Presidential Center is actually the polar opposite of the historic libraries that currently stand in honor of past United States presidents. 

Former U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a ceremonial groundbreaking at the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park on September 28, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The library for the 44th U.S. president will focus on others — an emphasis on the “we” in the “Yes, we can!” slogan from Obama’s U.S. Senate campaign in 2004, and more notably, his 2008 presidential campaign.

“That is what ‘Yes, we can’ means. It doesn’t have to be gigantic. It doesn’t have to be the movement that everyone heard. It just has to be the care that we all can give in our own communities and that we have that power within us,” Community organizer and former Obama presidential campaign worker Jennifer Warner told theGrio.

Former senior advisor to President Obama and longtime friend Valerie Jarrett told theGrio that the Obama administration’s mission “was always recognizing that the people who came before us labored, sacrificed and we stand on their shoulders. 

“We didn’t just plop out of thin air and end up in the White House. There were people who sacrificed and paved the way,” she added.

U.S. President Barack Obama (C), Attorney General Eric Holder (L) and Senior Advisor to the President Valerie Jarrett (R) meet with leaders from African American civil rights groups in the Roosevelt Room of the White House February 18, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

It’s why Team Obama is continuing that charge with the construction of the historic leader’s presidential center. Jarrett said, “part of the message that we want to send to the public, to the young people of today and tomorrow, is that this work is hard. It doesn’t happen just like that. It takes often times far longer than it should. 

“But every person who has a baton has a responsibility to run with it as hard as they can and then pass it off and hopefully leave more space on the knee on the playing field for those who follow in their footsteps.”

The multi-million dollar Obama library is expected to revitalize Chicago’s lower-income and working-class community with dedications to people who made a difference and had a significant impact on American and human society. 

Dr. Sheryl Mango, assistant professor of history at Virginia State University told theGrio that The Obama Presidential Center is unlike other traditional libraries that have been erected to honor previous presidents. Mango noted that the center is not “disconnected or elitist.”

Former U.S. President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama participate in a ceremonial groundbreaking at the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park on September 28, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Instead, humility and social consciousness are rooted in the spirit of the center located in Chicago’s majority African American south side, where former First Lady Michelle Obama grew up. As Jarrett noted, “this library will be completely engaged and community-based.”

President Obama, the son of a Kenyan migrant and white mother, is forever a luminary fixture in American politics as the first Black president. However, he has looked beyond his historic rise to power and is choosing to celebrate others who too forever changed American lives along the way.

Some of those who will be honored with structural dedications include Hadiya Pendleton, a Black Chicago teen gunned down just eight days after participating in Obama’s presidential inauguration, civil rights icon U.S. Congressman John Lewis, and Mae Jamison, the first Black astronaut to travel into space. 

Many of these dedications have been made possible thanks to dozens of generous donors. The Obama Foundation released a list detailing some of the announced dedications and benefactors. 

A plaza honoring Lewis, for example, is sponsored by Amazon founder and executive chairman Jeff Bezos. Chicago’s first Black mayor Harold Washington will be honored through a prominent visitor overlook in the museum building sponsored by the Alphawood Foundation’s Fred Eychaner. American author Timuel Black will be honored through a museum exhibit on civic education and empowerment sponsored by Michael and Cari Sacks.

John Rogers, Jr., who will be honored through a museum exhibit featuring themes centered around working for the common good is sponsored by businesswoman Mellody Hobson and famed husband and filmmaker George Lucas.

More prominent names of donors and dedications are expected to be announced.

Bezos, one of the wealthiest people in the world, donated a whopping $100 million to The Obama Presidential Center. 

In an exclusive statement to theGrio about Bezos’s call for a plaza in honor of John Lewis, senior vice president of global corporate affairs for Amazon, and former Obama White House press secretary Jay Carney said, “Jeff wanted to name the plaza at the Obama Presidential Center after John Lewis because Lewis was a hero who spent his entire life fighting to ensure that Black Americans enjoyed the most fundamental right in a democracy — the right to vote. The fact that Lewis’s fight continues to this day made the choice all the more obvious to Jeff.”

(Photo: Abir Sultan- Pool/Getty Images and strid Riecken/Getty Images)

Carney added, “Jeff’s gift and his decision to honor John Lewis is helping the Obama Foundation set a new standard when it comes to the naming of public spaces.”

Ultimately, the Obama Center isn’t just an extension of President Obama’s civic work, but also his popularity globally and at home in the United States. His appeal was multigenerational, and he attracted people who admired him for his unwavering call to change societal systems and ways of thinking. 

Warner, a community organizer like Barack Obama before his run for public office, said she joined the Obama campaign because of his push to shake up the status quo, which greatly appealed to young people. It is likely why the Obamas have consistently centered the youth throughout their public lives and careers.

“I’m really so grateful for the fact that Obama ran for office because it was the thing that helped me get connected with my passion…I thought becoming a lawyer would be the way that I would be able to change the world,” said Warner of her decision to work for President Obama. “But that was not for me. And so I was really on this quest of trying to find my right place in the world.”

She added, “I hope that’s what the next generation sees as well…that is ultimately what the work of being in this country and having a democracy is about.”

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