‘The first but not the last’: Philly-area Black women celebrate VP Harris with pearls and pride

Alpha Kappa Alpha member Brandee Anderson is ecstatic for fellow AKA member and Vice President Kamala Harris at her home in Philadelphia on Inauguration Day 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Alpha Kappa Alpha member Brandee Anderson is ecstatic for fellow AKA member and Vice President Kamala Harris at her home in Philadelphia on Inauguration Day 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Philadelphia’s Darlene Miller has at least two things in common with new U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris.

Like Harris, Miller made history in the criminal justice realm. While Harris served as the first Black San Francisco district attorney and California Attorney General, Miller was working her way up to eventually run the Adult Probation and Parole Department in Philly. She’s also Harris’ sorority sister — they’re both of them proud members of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the country’s first Black sorority.

So Wednesday’s inauguration of Harris as the country’s first-ever Black, South Asian and woman vice president had a special significance to Miller.

“It actually filled me up, as I’m filling up now,” Miller said, choking back tears. “I was speechless at first. But I said, ‘Look at God. Look at the blueprint that he has placed on her life.’”

Darlene Miller wears an AKA vest and pearls inside her home
Darlene Miller, deputy court administrator for the First Judicial District Criminal Trial Division. (Courtesy of Darlene Miller)

Tears, relief and expectation imbued a bright and blustery Inauguration Day for many who spoke to WHYY.

Black women in Philadelphia expressed that the significance of Harris’ inauguration is more than skin deep. It’s a moment steeped in historical ethos, a lightening of the United States’ dark legacy of racial and gender inequity.

“It’s an incredibly special moment for Black women in this city,” said West Philly Councilmember Jamie Gauthier.

Harris’ election to the second-highest office in the nation offers hope, even as the country continues to grapple with that undeniable legacy, said attorney Brandee Blocker Anderson.

“It’s emotional because of where we come from as Black people, particularly Black women,” said Blocker Anderson, CEO of The Anti-Racist Academy. “Even though we’ve gotten the least and the shortest end of the stick time and time again, we’ve always believed in democracy and have pushed our country to be better.”

Inauguration celebrations began early in the day around Philadelphia, as Black women leaders and sorors in the National Pan-Hellenic Council, also known as the Divine Nine, dressed in AKA’s signature pearls.

On the campaign trail, Harris also became known for rocking her Chuck Taylors, so the laid-back sneakers were also popular attire.

AKA member Blocker decked out her living room in the sorority’s signature pink and green. Miller donned pink-hued hair.

“I am pink down,” Miller said. “I have my pink and green vest on, I have my pearls and my pink shoes.”

An inspiration to Philadelphia sisters

VP Harris steps into her new role atop a career filled with historic landmarks. She’s a first-generation American whose mother immigrated from India and father came from Jamaica.

She is the first graduate of a historically Black college or university, or HBCU, to land in the White House, with a degree in political science and economics from Howard University, where AKA was founded in 1908.

Harris was the second Black woman to serve in the U.S. Senate, and the only one there during her four-year tenure, which ended with her victory in November’s election. She served as the first and only U.S. senator who self-identifies as South Asian.

Dr. Ala Stanford wears pearls and a t-shirt that features the face of Vice President Hamala Harris
Dr. Ala Stanford is an AKA and made sure to wear her Madam Vice President t-shirt and her pearls for Inauguration Day. (Courtesy of Dr. Ala Stanford)

Before that, she made history as California’s first woman, first Black, and first South Asian American attorney general. When she became San Francisco District Attorney in 2003, she was the first non-white person elected to that office.

The milestones offer inspiration that many more will follow in Harris’ footsteps, said Dr. Ala Stanford, leader of Philly’s Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium and a fellow AKA.

“She’s the first, but she won’t be the last,” Stanford said.

Philly resident Lisa Cooper, another AKA, rose early, adorned herself in pearl earrings and went for a morning jog with her sorority sisters. The trio wore pink hats, bright pink workout leggings and matching green and pink striped “AKA” socks.

Cooper graduated from what she said Harris might call “the other HU” — Hampton University, which maintains a friendly, ongoing feud with Howard University — but was still bursting with pride.

“She’s such an inspiration to not just little Black girls,” Cooper said of Harris, “but all girls across the world that you can do anything.”

Lisa Cooper and her Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sisters doing an early morning run to celebrate Inauguration Day. (Courtesy of Lisa Cooper)

‘All your hard work mattered’

Philly Councilmembers Katherin Gilmore-Richardson and Gauthier joined other elected officials for an Inauguration Day “Jeopardy” Zoom party. Gauthier set aside time for herself and staff to watch the festivities, take in the moment, she said, while Councilmember Cindy Bass planned to spend the day on Zoom talking about the significance of this moment.

“It’s hard to describe, but it almost felt like a weight had been lifted,” Bass said. “We have arrived. What so many other Black women have worked so hard for, we all stand on their shoulders.”

Harris’ career as a successful Black politician builds on foundations laid by former congresswoman and presidential candidate Shirley Chisolm and voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, the officials all noted.

Philadelphia can lay claim to helping Harris, along with President Joe Biden, win election to the highest offices in the land. With that comes the hope, expectation and promise that the new administration will produce policies that address the city’s most pressing issues, officials said.

Gauthier looks forward to a “competent administration” that’ll lead the nation out of the pandemic. Housing and job security along with gun violence solutions are the top Philly-related issues she hopes the admin will tackle.

Councilmember Katherine Gilmore-Richardson (right) wears sorority blue and pearls while sitting next to her 6-year-old daughter, Katherine
Councilmember Katherine Gilmore-Richardson, a member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc., with daughter Katherine, 6, wearing her pearls and sorority blue on Inauguration Day. (Courtesy of Councilmember Katherine Gilmore-Richardson)

Councilmember Kendra Brooks, excited about Harris’ appointment, said she’s prepared to hold the new administration responsible.

“Historically, the party has taken Black women for granted,” Brooks said. “So we delivered the vote, we celebrate the fact that one of us is in office, but we’re still going to continue to push to make sure that the issues that affect our families are being met.”

Then Sen. Kamala Harris stands with 9th District Councilmember Cherelle Parker at September’s Sister Sister event in Northwest Philadelphia.
Then Sen. Kamala Harris stands with 9th District Councilmember Cherelle Parker at September’s Sister Sister event in Northwest Philadelphia. (Lawrence Jackson/Biden for President)

Councilmember Cherelle Parker hosted Harris at the Sister Sister political event this past September. She leads the city’s powerful, participatory 50th ward, and said the Biden-Harris presidency means so much particularly to her hard-voting, organizing constituency.

“It tells voters,” Parker said, her voice welling with tears, “that all your hard work mattered.”

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