First Black Woman Elected To Congress From CT

Photographs By John Murray

Jahana Hayes made an emotional entrance into a crowded ballroom filled with soul music and anticipation. With last night’s victory Hayes has made an extraordinary leap from the Berkeley Heights Project in the North End of Waterbury, to the 2016 National Teacher of the Year, to the halls of the United States Congress. Jahana’s improbable and fantastic journey captured national attention as very few members of Congress have ever experienced poverty the way Hayes has. Last night she carved her name into history as the first African-American woman to represent Connecticut in Congress, “I’m a history teacher making history,” she said.

As Hayes entered the ballroom at the Courtyard By Marriott in downtown Waterbury, a sea of cellphones lit up the room.

On her way to the stage Hayes stopped to embrace and cry with friends and family, and when she reached the podium she stood silently for nearly two minutes trying to harness her emotions so she could begin her speech.

Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary has been a huge supporter of Jahana’s incredible journey from award-winning teacher to candidate for the U.S. Congress.

Mayor O’Leary gave a rousing introduction to the next Congresswoman from the 5th District in Connecticut.

Hayes began election day by going to church and visiting the grave site of her grandmother, who helped raised her as her mother struggled with addiction. Throughout her 20-minute speech Hayes laughed, cried, celebrated, and delivered a powerful message about the importance of diversity inside the United States Congress.

On election night Hayes wore the same dress she did when she met President Barack Obama in the White House as she was honored as the 2016 National Teacher of the Year. “I’m taking this dress back to Washington,” she said, and the crowd roared its approval.

Hayes became a single mother at 17 years old. Three decades later she has been elected to Congress, and at times, even she is overwhelmed by her story.

In the middle of her speech Hayes turned to a group of children standing on the edge of the stage and looked them directly in the eye. “You can become anything you want,” she said. Anything.” Her message has resonated with youth, and her former students, one who returned from Belgium for the opportunity to cast a vote for Hayes in person.

While Hayes was expressing herself in a packed ballroom, her son watched closely from a few feet away.

After her speech Jahana embraced her husband, Milford Hayes, a detective in the Waterbury Police Department.

Hayes shared a warm embrace with her daughter, Asia Coxton, who is also a teacher.

Hayes’ victory has inspired people new to the political process, including this young Muslim girl who was moved to tears.

When students used to approach Hayes with their problems she asked them three questions;

• What? (and after they explained their problem she would ask the second question)

• So what? (which led to her third and most important question)

• Now what?

And it’s that direct approach to problem solving that has catapulted Jahana Hayes into the halls of Congress. Now the residents of the 5th Congressional District in Connecticut have a question for her.

Now what?