Fort Valley group soaks in atmosphere of National Mall, significance of events

WASHINGTON, D.C. – On a 22-degree morning in northern Virginia, a group of college kids from Georgia trekked into the nation's capital for their own glimpse of American history.

Never mind that theirs was a far-off view of the 44th president's swearing in, or that the view from home on even the most ancient TV set might've been worlds clearer. For this was their moment to share and cherish, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of thousands of their nation's brothers and sisters while the winds of change, and a stiff winter breeze, swept them under its spell.

A couple of dozen Fort Valley State University students and that many more of their chaperones and fellow charter-bus travelers from Peach County stood on the Washington Mall for more than five hours to see, a mile-and-a-half or so in the distance, the first African-American president sworn in.

"It was like I was dreaming," student Tanisha Matthews said.

Matthews, 23, an English major from south Florida, said, "Your mind was almost blank. You were just taking it in."

A crowd so cram-packed that it was just about impossible to bend over and tie your shoes greeted the opening minutes of Barack Obama's presidency with cheers, flag waves and more cheers. For many, the moment was a civics lesson of the highest order.

Albany resident Marye Wright, Fort Valley class of 1959, looked on and hollered with joy during Obama's inaugural address.

"Someone standing by me was saying how they didn't need to go to church anymore this year," Wright said. "They were saying how it was like a sermon."

Ross Loyal, 19, a business administration major from Indiana, teared up.

"I'm just so proud to be here," he said. "I couldn't see the new president, but at least I could hear him."

The Fort Valley contingent, which left home Sunday evening and spent a Monday at a Williamsburg, Va., motel, headed for D.C. just after midnight Tuesday, arriving, after a commuter-train ride, at about 7:30 a.m.

Many in the group watched the ceremony, thanks to one of several giant televisions, from in front of the Museum of Natural History, the Capitol serving as a backdrop while the inauguration played out on the screen. To their backs, the Lincoln Memorial put a bookend on the Mall and heaping cross section of American public.

"There was just something about the aroma of the spirit there. It was just calm and good," Hazel Jackson, a counselor at Perry High School, said.

"The air, the atmosphere, everybody was full of happiness," she said. "It was about realizing the only good way that we can help Obama is by evaluating our own lives. I think everybody is ready for a change. . . . This young white boy was standing behind me and he just grabbed me and hugged my neck and told me how proud he was to be an American. There was so much unity."

Imagine a larger-than-life Times Square New Year's Eve. One where, instead of dropping a big ball, they let loose crisp $100 bills with a new president's face on them. The mood was that festive, and scores in attendance gobbled up their eyewitnessing of history with a zeal that fans of out-of-nowhere Super Bowl winners could never dream of exhibiting.

Onlookers told complete strangers that they loved them.

Matthews, the English major from Florida, called her father and told him how folks on the commuter train into the city "were actually talking to each other."

"It was like we all knew one another," she said.

Not that the Mall crowd didn't unloose its share of barbs. The gathering was part pep rally, part royal parade. And, on a couple of instances – the minute-long booing of outgoing President George W. Bush – as biting as the wind-chill.

When Barbara Bush hit the big screen, someone in back of the Fort Valley contingent howled, "Take your son back to Texas!"

When former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was introduced, a man hollered, "Go away, Newt Gingrich! Go away forever!"

The new administration and its personalities, however, drew nothing but raves.

"Look at Michelle (Obama)! She's so classy. Look at that beautiful outfit!" one woman in the crowd cried.

When Barack Obama took center stage, cheers of "Oh-Bah-Muh! Oh-Bah-Muh!" rang out.

"Let's go, America! Let's go!" yelled Fort Valley senior Geoffrey Turner, a 22-year-old chemisty major.

And after Obama took the oath, Turner chimed in with a "we're in there! We're in there!"

There was plenty of reflection in the crowd as well.

Michael Hill, 20, a criminal-justice student from Savannah, said, "It all seemed so surreal. Yeah, I was here witnessing it. But it wasn't untill the middle of his inauguration speech – with those millions of people going quiet and Obama's words echoing off those buildings – that it hit me: We finally made it."

Richard Miller, 45, the university's maintenance supervisor, said, "The moment before the swearing in, when Obama came on the stage, you could just see change. I looked around and saw tears in people's eyes. It was a defining moment, just breathtaking. Something you can't explain."

But something that will endure in the minds of many who celebrated it and admired it in person, even if from a distance. Because for so many, it was one they thought they might never see at all.

One Fort Valley traveler was so into the inaugural afterglow that he stood in front of the Smithsonian Institution castle and greeted passersby with the kindliest of Southern gestures.

"Everyone," he said, "is invited to Georgia for barbecue!"