published Wednesday, January 21st, 2009

Chattanoogans ready for change

by Elizabeth Ryan
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Mamie Mathis

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Cheers for Obama

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Greg Toney

The energy of President Barack Obama’s inauguration rippled through Chattanooga Tuesday as people around the city sat glued to the television, witnessing history in the making.

Black elderly residents wept, recalling days when they weren’t allowed to use the same public restrooms as whites; some younger adults prayed that the moment would truly unite America; Jewish residents hoped it could lead to peace in the Middle East.

Everyone agreed it was time for change.

Historical witness

Inside the Bessie Smith Hall on M.L. King Boulevard, hundreds of people wearing Obama headbands, baseball caps and T-shirts with his face outlined in rhinestones gathered to celebrate.

“I’ve witnessed a whole lot of history and it just seemed like this was a day that topped the days of days,” said John Cox, 70. “I can’t explain the feeling of joy and the relief that I feel on the inside. It seems like America’s about ready to become America.”

As Barack Obama entered the platform on the Capitol steps before his swearing-in ceremony, the crowd jumped to its feet, cheering and chanting his name. People took photos with their cell phones. Many wept.

After the oath of office, Loretta Owens, 61, sat down, while others remained standing, trying to take stock of what had happened.

“I feel like I’ve never felt before,” she said. “I just feel good in my heart because I know it’s good for everybody. Not just my race, but everyone.”

Mamie Mathis, 76, had no trouble summing up her feelings.

“I feel great! I feel great! Oh, I feel so good!” she said. “Yeah, this is a day that the Lord has made and I will rejoice and be glad!”

At Boynton Terrace Senior Neighbors, just up from Riverfront Parkway, nearly two dozen elderly residents gathered around the television to witness a moment many said they never thought they’d live to see.

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“Our forefathers are probably turning over in their graves,” said 58-year-old Barbara Shahid. “They’re happy and shouting ‘glory to God’ because this has happened.”

Several people shed tears of joy during the ceremony, not only for themselves, but for mothers and fathers and those who participated in the civil rights movement.

Even when people heard Sam Cooke sing “A Change Is Gonna Come” in 1964, during the heart of the movement, not many imagined that a black man might be president within their lifetimes, said Charlene Kilpatrick, who brought an Obama celebration cake to the gathering.

“Seniors are a part of the civil rights movement but they have often been forgotten. This is something we thought we would never see,” said Ms. Kilpatrick, who wouldn’t give her age, but said she had teenage children when Dr. Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963.


Almost every customer seated around the bar at Sticky Fingers on Broad Street focused their eyes on the television mounted to the wall.

All except Hixson resident April Cox, who closed her eyes and bowed her head over her salad during Pastor Rick Warren’s opening prayer at the inauguration.

She clapped later as Vice President Joe Biden was sworn in, saying the event was emotional for many people.

“They’re trying to tap into the tears now,” she said as the camera panned to violinist Itzhak Perlman, who performed with cellist Yo Yo Ma, pianist Gabriela Montero and clarinetist Anthony McGill.

Mrs. Cox’s husband, Jody, was less reverent.

“Cheney’s now unemployed,” he said as his chicken sandwich arrived. “I wonder if he gets unemployment.”

The couple, who normally vote Republican but cast ballots for Sen. Obama in 2008, said they planned their lunch so they would be in front of a television to watch the address.

A block away, cheese salesman Brian McMillan of Birmingham watched the new president’s speech while sipping on a Guinness and smoking a Winston at the Hair of the Dog Pub.

He left Alabama earlier than usual Tuesday, he said, and scheduled his day around the inaugural address. He didn’t want to watch re-caps later on television, he said.

“Once you get out of the moment, you lose a little something,” he said.

Terry Brandes, a Republican who voted for President Obama, walked past Taco Mac on his way to another restaurant before he heard the ceremony over the Mexican restaurant’s exterior speakers. After ordering, his burrito was delivered during the playing of “Hail to the Chief.”

Americans tuned in because of what the ceremony signified, he said.

“People want to see that change is coming,” he said.


A luncheon at the Jewish Community Federation of Greater Chattanooga drew a small crowd, whose reaction to the event ranged from relief at the end of the Bush years to optimism about the prospects for change around the world.

“This is the world witnessing a pretty powerful moment in our history and I think this is really an opportunity,” said the Federation Executive Director Michael Dzik. “I hope President Obama will take advantage of that, I hope the Israelis will take advantage of that, and I hope the Palestinian leadership, whoever they are, will step to the table and see this as an opportunity for a clean slate and to work towards peace.”

With their own history of suffering and oppression, Jews have long been allies to the black community, Mr. Dzik said. On the march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. walked arm in arm with a Jewish rabbi, Mr. Dzik pointed out.

JoAnn Shipley, 53, choked up when she thought about how her mother would feel if she were alive today.

“As a young child, I used to stand on the statehouse grounds with my mother in Columbus, Ohio, and march in the civil rights marches,” she said. “Dr. King was a hero of mine, so it’s a dream come true.”

Ms. Shipley, who is Jewish, and her husband, Fernando, 48, who is black, said they have raised their children, Gabe, 12, and Maya, 11, to think of themselves as neither black or white, but human.

It’s sometimes tough, however, with the discrimination they said they still experience. It’s common for them to receive lots of stares when out in public, they said, and to be the first ones to walk in a restaurant but the last ones to be served.

Still, the inauguration offers hope that times are changing, especially for her children, she said.

“It opens the door for them to be whatever they want to be,” Ms. Shipley said. “I want them to be proud that they live in a country where they can exceed boundaries, especially now.”


Among those at Boynton Terrace, Gracie Tuggle sat facing the television, wrapped in a red and blue sweater with bobby pins holding back the sides of her gray, wavy hair.

“I’ve been around a long time,” said the 80-year-old Chattanooga resident. “And this is the most wonderful sight I’ve ever seen.”

Then she started to cry.

“I went through a lot and nothing could we say,” she said.

Her friend Lela Holmes, 74, comforted her, then started telling her story.

“When we were growing up, you had black and white bathrooms and water fountains,” she said. “We couldn’t go to restaurants and, if you could go, you had to order and leave. You couldn’t sit down.”

Eighty-four year old Mary Katharyn Lee sat quietly, wiping tears through President Obama’s address. When it ended, she got up and patted Ms. Tuggle on the back.

“Young ones and old have gone on, but we lived to see,” she said.

Staff writers Yolanda Putman and Andy Johns contributed to this story.

  • Historic day
    To watch the historic swearing-in of Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, residents of the Boynton Terrace Apartments gathered with friends in front of a TV on Tuesday.
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