Isabel Wilkerson revisits this year’s obituaries from 750 newspapers across the country. It was a year of “the first African-American to…” O the strides made in humble mundanity.

Sometime in the future, the phrase will be invoked for the biggest first of all, the first African-American elected to the Oval Office, a designation that surely the first milk-delivery man and the first postal clerk and the first business agent for Heavy Construction Laborers’ Union Local 663 in Kansas City, Mo., had, upon consideration, more than a little something to do with.