WASHINGTON, D.C. – All those who attended Barack Obama’s inauguration as President of the United States shared the same sentiment: It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment.
“Until he is sworn in, I won’t believe it is real,” 63-year-old Carol House of Chicago told me as we rode a subway train in the nation’s capital Monday, less than 24 hours before the first Black man would take the oath of president.
“I am 63 years old, and I marched with Dr. King. For me to see a Black man become president, it is still unreal.”
House and her sister, Mildred Mullen, were both Obama campaign workers. “I’m here for my father, my mother and my sister – they are all deceased,” said Mullen. “If they could have lived to see this day, it really would have been something. And I know that my father would really recognize the fact that we now have a Black president. I just believe that he is going to do so much for this country.”
I met many like sisters Carol and Mildred for whom this journey to the nation’s capital was a pilgrimage of sorts.
Cassandra Morris of Chicago said that she and 11 of her friends made the trek to D.C.: “I had a feeling that he was going to win,” she said, “so before the election was over, we booked our flight [for Washington]. Not only is this a historic time, but I am proud of what has happened, and for [Obama] being from Chicago.”
“I am totally excited, as is everyone else,” said DeShawn Snow, who has her own foundation and also starred in Bravo’s reality show The Real Housewives of Atlanta.
I ran into a few folk from Minnesota, like Urban Mass Media Group Executive Director Pete Rhodes III. “I’ve never seen so much joy and happiness in people of all races and colors,” Rhodes said.
Urban Mass Media Group’s Kim Bodel added, “It is a coming together of everyone in the United States and across the world, wanting to work together to make America the country that it is – a good country.”
“It is something that I can tell my daughter and granddaughters that I was here, as well as having my mom, my brothers and some other people here,” said Ken Foxworth, a member of the state’s DFL Black Caucus. “Representing the state of Minnesota is quite an honor. Just seeing this crowd, it’s amazing.”
California State Assembly Assistant Majority Whip Isadore Hall III duly noted, “Fifteen to 20 years from now, the question is going to be asked: â€˜Where were you when Barack Obama was sworn in?'”
Washington, D.C., city worker Ernest Wayne Hainesworth, who I met when I arrived in the city two days before the inauguration, told me while on duty, “I wish my mom and dad were living, especially my father. He would have loved this. He shook Martin Luther King’s hand, and [John] Kennedy’s hand. He would have gotten one of my sisters or one of my brothers and took him down to see that.”
“The city is electric right now,” said Howard University second-year doctoral student Imani Cheeks of Mitchellville, Maryland. Added classmate Sophia Nur of Hyattsville, Maryland, “It is an amazing time to see so many people out and about, coming from all over the United States and all over the world, and to see such a positive vibe in the city. We are really enjoying having people come together for this type of fellowship.”
“This is my first time here,” admitted Willie Melton, who traveled from Atlanta to attend the inauguration. “It’s a beautiful dayâ€¦ It’s cold, but you don’t feel it. It is just a joyful day.”
Melton sat next to me on the U.S. Capitol grounds – I sat in the fourth row from the rear of the “green” section on the west side. Many thousands more sat behind me, waves of folk lined up in makeshift rows all the way to the Washington Monument. Crowd estimates have it at around two million in attendance.
We all came to hear and see our new president.
“This speaks volumes,” Melton marveled.
I have been in Washington, D.C., several times as a reporter, most recently a couple of weeks after last November’s elections. However, I never been to the Capitol, let alone witnessed in person an inauguration. It wasn’t lost on me how far I have come from a generation twice removed from slavery and the first in my family to attend and graduate from college.
It wasn’t lost on me that neither of my parents could vote for a president until they left their native South and moved to Detroit.
It wasn’t lost on me that my uncle, who I didn’t know until after his death in 2006, was awarded two heroic medals during his service in World War II – yet he, too, had to relocate north in order to fully participate in voting for this nation’s top leaders.
It wasn’t lost on me that these three influential persons in my life were not physically able to witness this, but they and countless others who have passed on surely watched from above as Barack Obama, on Tuesday, January 20, 2009, was sworn in as President of the United States.
Sixty-year-old Ruby Woolridge of Texas shrieked “Oh, my God” the moment she saw First Lady Michelle Obama appear on the jumbo video screen located just to the left of where we sat. She uttered shrieks again for each of the Obama daughters and one loud one when the new president arrived.
Woolridge later explained, “I’m excited. I don’t have words that really describe this. I am so glad I am part of history today.”
Tuesday’s inauguration ceremonies featured all the usual pomp and circumstance, but once President Obama arrived, all protocol temporarily went south. Choruses of “O-Ba-Ma” spread through the crowd, infecting everyone in sight, stopping only when the former U.S. senator from Illinois took the official oath.
The chanting picked up briefly after Obama officially became the nation’s 44th president.
“Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America,” Obama told the country in his first speech as chief executive. He quickly reminded us that we are all Americans, an interesting affirmation coming from a Black man whose people once were enslaved, then set free, but not given full citizen rights until almost a half-century later, after which Congressional legislation was still necessary to ensure voting privileges.
A true African American whose father was Kenyan and mother was from Kansas, Obama was elected by a clear majority of Americans last fall to lead this nation. “This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed,” President Obama declared Tuesday, “â€¦why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”
As the new president concluded his address, the multitude responded without missing a beat: “Yes we can!”
“I know that God’s hands are upon this place and this man,” said Woolridge. “My mom is 81 years old, and for her to witness this was very special. I am taking lots of pictures [to her] because she has seen the impossible and has been able to experience this in ways that there are no words to describe.
“It makes you proud to be an American, no matter who you are and where you are from. You know that it is a moment in history, a pause for the ages,” Woolridge said.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org