Chattanoogans witness history, join in the capital celebrations

Chattanoogans witness history, join in the capital celebrations

January 21st, 2009 by Herman Wang in Local Regional News

WASHINGTON - For John Taylor and his merry band of 239 traveling Chattanoogans, Inauguration Day started early, with a 1:30 a.m. wake-up call at their hotel in Harrisburg, Pa.

That was followed by a two-hour bus ride to Washington, D.C., and another two-hour ride on the city's Metro rail to the National Mall. Once there, they squeezed in among the almost 2 million other revelers and braved sub-freezing temperatures for several hours until the ceremony began.

But the pay-off - the chance to see the first black man sworn in as president of the United States - kept spirits high and hearts warm, they said.

"It was just totally exciting, a day we'll always remember," said Mr. Taylor, a black former Chattanooga city councilman who owns a prominent funeral home. "The crowds were immense and the Metro was backed up solid, but we were blessed. It was just pure joy to be present and witness history for ourselves."

The 20-degree temperatures, with a wind chill of 12 degrees in a steady breeze, didn't dampen the enthusiasm as chants of "O-ba-ma" swelled through the crowd, which began gathering at the Mall at 2 a.m.

Celebrities in the ticketed area close to the platform, including Denzel Washington, Sean "P. Diddy" Combs and Beyonce, posed for pictures and declared to reporters how momentous the occasion was, not just for the black community, but for the entire country and even the world.

"I'm overwhelmed," singer Smokey Robinson said. "This is the USA, the way it's supposed to be. It's a wonderful day for all of us, and it gives us a positive image to the world."

The crowd whooped and hollered every time President Barack Obama's image was shown on the jumbo TV screens placed around the National Mall, the jubilation climaxing after he took his oath of office shortly after noon and was declared the nation's 44th president.

Duffy Hudson, an Obama campaign volunteer from Hamilton County, wasn't able actually to get onto the Mall because the crush of people forced the crowd to flow into side streets.

But from his perch at Second Street and Constitution Avenue to the side of the Capitol, he got a good view of President Obama and former President George W. Bush as they made their way to the ceremony.

"We were clapping and whistling," Mr. Hudson said. "We've worked all year for this."

For many black Chattanoogans who had lived through the civil rights era, President Obama's inauguration was a validation of the battles they fought.

Ron Coleman, 62, a retired mechanic at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, was among 12 black honor students from Howard High School who staged sit-ins at whites-only lunch counters in 1960. That experience made Tuesday's inauguration that much sweeter, he said.

The sit-ins "were something that put fear in your heart, but it was something you had to do," he said. "These events put a different feeling in your heart, and I'm blessed to have experienced both sides of the fence."

Mr. Taylor said he hopes President Obama's inauguration will inspire people to be more engaged with their government.

"We've lost what it means to serve," Mr. Taylor said. "At a moment like this, we need people saying, 'We care about you.' Obama gives us that feeling, and he wants to serve. His whole life is service."

Sylvia Phillips, 52, a retired chemical engineer, said she valued the fellowship with the people she met in Washington from all across the world.

"It was a party atmosphere with all these people from different nationalities," she said. "I have two daughters, and I've told them their whole lives that they can do anything. This proves it, and I just say, 'Thank the Lord that I'm alive to see it.'"