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Scene from Va.'s "Chocolate City"

The community of Nauck in Arlington was founded in 1844 by freedmen, former slaves who had either bought their own freedom or were released from human bondage. Over the decades, like so many African American communities, it became isolated from the often hostile white world around it and self-sufficient out of necessity. It's the kind of place where memories of segregation and sitting on the back of the bus aren't all that distant.

So for many, Tuesday dawned as a day of wonder. A day that Marvin Gardner, who works as a janitor at the Drew Model Elementary School, never could have dreamed would come in his lifetime. "I didn't think I'd ever see this," he said.

The line to vote started shortly after 3 a.m. and stretched from the building, through the parking lot and out into the street. "It was Chocolate City," laughed John Lett, Nauck precinct captain for the Arlington Democratic party. "There were some older folks waiting in line who'd never voted before in their lives. I've never seen such enthusiasm here before. And I don't think it's because black voters are naive enough to vote for a black candidate. It's because Barak Obama makes people feel included. People finally feel as if they have a say so."

Tyra Baker, chief election official for the precinct, said that 1,000 voters tend to cast ballots in a good year, less than half of all registered voters. But by noon, nearly 1,100 of the precinct's 2,500 registered voters had cast ballots. And 350 others had already voted absentee.

"Everybody's got election fever here," she said. "There's an enthusiasm that I haven't seen in the 20 years that I've been doing elections."

For months now, he and others said, the air has felt different in Nauck. At the barber shops, family barbecues, down at the grocery store, people were putting up signs, dissecting policy positions, engaged.

Corene Brown showed up at 4 a.m. to get her spot in line. "This morning was the first time I've seen my whole family down here voting," she said. "My grandmother, who is disabled, came to vote. My grandfather, who says he doesn't really care about politics, was down here. There's just a lot of excitement."

Brown even had her six-year-old son, Tico, stay up late to watch one of the debates with her. It's not that she expected him to understand anything. But for a six-year-old boy to see a presidential candidate with a face like his - what better lesson, she thought, about showing what's possible in life?

That's just what Alfred Taylor has been hoping for. The retired teacher has seen too many young black men make bad choices, he said. Limited choices. Fatalistic choices.

"People said they could be anything they wanted, but the evidence showed them they couldn't," he said. "They've been living for funny dreams, like being a professional athlete. But I can see their enthusiasm now. With this election, I see them getting involved. It's just an exciting time."

That's what Darin Hammond, who's studying computer technology at a school for inner city kids who've had it rough, felt. Hammond voted for Bush in 2004 because he didn't like Kerry's demeanor. But he didn't much like Bush, either.

In Barack Obama he said he found not only a candidate with whom he could agree, but a figure of hope. "It's not just pride I feel, it's gratification," he said. "Here's someone who shows me I can do something other than be in the street. I do have choices and options. I don't have to be a statistic."

-- Brigid Schulte

By Kristen Mack  |  November 4, 2008; 6:05 PM ET
 
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