(CNN) — As the Rev. Raphael Warnock makes history by being elected the first Black US senator from Georgia, he’s thinking of the remarkable journey of his mother.
Verlene Warnock spent her summers picking cotton and tobacco as a teen in Waycross, Georgia, in the 1950s before becoming a pastor.
“Because this is America, the 82-year-old hands that used to pick somebody else’s cotton went to the polls and picked her youngest son to be a United States senator,” Warnock said in a speech shortly after midnight Wednesday.
Her story was not uncommon. In the Jim Crow South, many poor Black people built savings by working in the fields because it was almost impossible for them to own land, said Karlos Hill, chair of African-American studies at the University of Oklahoma.
At 82, Verlene Warnock still preaches at Bible and Prayer Ministries, her church in Savannah.
And her son, the 11th of 12 children, is going to Congress.
Raphael Warnock edged incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler in a hotly contested race that could dictate which party controls the Senate. Throughout his campaign, Warnock has described his candidacy, and his family’s story, as encapsulating the American dream.
His father, the late Rev. Jonathan Warnock, was also a Pentecostal pastor and a World War II veteran who salvaged abandoned cars. He and his wife of 42 years struggled to raise their 12 kids in public housing in the coastal city of Savannah, which Warnock says taught him the value of hard work.
“The man who saw the value in a junk car that another person had thrown away during the week preached to people who themselves felt discarded,” Warnock told CNN last month.
Warnock followed in his father’s footsteps and is a senior pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King served as co-pastor. Black voters in Atlanta, the cradle of the civil rights movement, and its suburbs turned out in big numbers to help him win the seat.
Warnock, 51, will become the first Black Democrat to represent a Southern state in the Senate.
In an election year marked by bitterness and division, the election of a Black Southerner to the Senate is stunning, Warnock said.
“That’s why I love this country so much and I refuse to give in to the forces of cynicism,” he said. “It takes hard work. Change is slow, often it comes in fits and starts.”
Warnock said he plans to return to the pulpit Sunday mornings to preach even after he goes to Washington.
“The last thing I want to do is become disconnected from the community and just spend all of my time talking to the politicians … I have no intentions of becoming a politician, I intend to be a public servant,” he said.
Many Black Southerners still picked cotton well into the 20th century
Warnock’s victory is a sort of a full-circle moment for his mother, who overcame discrimination in the Jim Crow South.
Slavery had long been abolished, but many Black Americans in the early 1900s worked as sharecroppers — tenant farmers who labored on plantations in exchange for housing and food.
And some Black people in states such as Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina and Louisiana were still picking cotton in the mid-1900s despite mechanization.
The system often left Black workers in debt to landowners and vulnerable to being exploited, Hill said.
“You had in many instances Whites who owned the land, who owned the tools of production, the seeds to cultivate the cotton crop,” Hill said. “The only thing that Black people brought to the table was their labor. Often times, the White landowner would not give them their fair share from the proceeds of the sale of the cotton.”
Laborers who worked in the fields were paid based on how much cotton they picked, keeping many Black families in poverty with limited options to succeed, he said.
More than half a century after she left those fields, Verlene Warnock’s son is set to become one of the most powerful men in the South — and the country.