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Midstate residents celebrate inauguration from afar in different ways

The excitement of Tuesday’s historic inauguration of Barack Obama was evident all across the midstate. From schools and colleges to public gathering spots, many Middle Georgians watched the events unfold or celebrated with their own festivities.

At Ingram-Pye Elementary School in Macon, the school’s 300 students marched through the Unionville neighborhood chanting “yes, we can” and holding signs, such as one that read, “A new day, a new vision, a new President.”

The students marched to a nearby church on Anthony Road to celebrate. Obama’s inauguration was especially inspiring for students in the majority black elementary school.

“I know he is changing things,” said Amunet Smith, president of the school’s third-grade class, who carried an Obama banner as she marched down Lincoln Street with her friends.

Teacher Ethel Brown said students spent weeks decorating the school with red, white and blue streamers, making banners and even reading a book about Obama.

“I think they’re old enough to know (Tuesday) is a special day,” Brown said. “They’ll remember it, even if nothing but remembering they walked in the cold.”

Third-grader DaShaun Brown spent a week memorizing Obama’s acceptance speech from the Democratic National Convention, part of which he recited in front of his classmates.

“I wanted to celebrate for Barack Obama,” said the 8-year-old, wearing a tie. “He’s my favorite president.”

The Rev. H. Larry Eason of Greater Little Rock Baptist Church, a keynote speaker at the gathering, encouraged the students to study and dream because Obama had opened new doors for them.

“Today represents the hope of every citizen that no doors are closed anymore,” Eason said. “I honestly did not feel I would see this (in my lifetime.) I always believed an African-American could become vice president, but not chief executive officer.”

“We commemorate a new day and a new way ... a political possibility,” he said.

Mount de Sales Academy in Macon also celebrated Obama’s inauguration, with several students describing it as a turning point for the nation.

The private school started the day with a prayer for a united future, and then the school’s 440 high school students gathered in the auditorium to watch the inauguration on a giant screen.

Katoria Nelson, who said Obama was her role model, wore a pink Obama T-shirt and a button that read “The dream can come true.”

“I think the students enjoy seeing a nation changing,” said Brantley Macfie, a freshman.

“It’s a symbol of how far we’ve progressed as a tolerant nation and how far we’ve come to have a diverse leader without disrupting into violence,” said another freshman, Chris Price.

AT HUNT ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

In Fort Valley, the 14 students in LuAnn O’Steen’s third-grade class at Hunt Elementary School said they knew why Tuesday was an historic occasion.

“Because Barack Obama is the president now,” said Emily Gowen. The 8-year-old continued, “Before, it was George W. Bush until today. Now Barack Obama is fully the president.”

“He’s going to be the first black president!” said 8-year-old Antavious Golphin.

“Now he’s our president!” called out 9-year-old Jawun Hampton. “George Bush is going to give him the keys to the White House.”

The halls of the school were decorated in red, white and blue streamers, and among the projects on the walls were various patriotic posters and drawings of the new president.

Principal Janice Flowers said while decoration preparations began in earnest last week, students on the whole had been avidly following the political goings-on all year long.

“I think most of the students realize the significance of the day and what it means for them,” Flowers said. “Of course, given their ages, it is a stretch for some of them.”

O’Steen said Tuesday’s lessons were geared toward the inauguration, and they would be made into a “memory book” for the students to keep.

“They’ll be re-creating President Obama on graphic paper and charting the timeline of his first day,” she said. “They are extremely excited, and they’ve been talking about this before and after the election.”

The entire third grade got into the act for one project, a huge flag just outside O’Steen’s classroom. The red and white stripes were cutouts of the students’ hands, and above the flag was the phrase “Hand in hand, united we stand.”

“It was fun doing this,” said Kamry McGhee, 8. “I put five or six hands on it. I’m so happy Obama is president and in the White House.”

The entire school also was having a sack lunch, O’Steen said, so the students could watch the noontime ceremony in their classrooms undisturbed.

Back in her class, O’Steen said her young children had asked her why such a big deal was being made over Obama’s inauguration. “They didn’t understand the racial implications,” she said. “To them, he is the president. They see race a lot differently than we do.”

AT FORT VALLEY STATE UNIVERSITY

Inside the C.W. Pettigrew Center, Alfred Gibson of Wilkinson County sat in the very back row, waiting for Obama’s swearing-in.

At age 74, he reflected on a life spent in a segregated Georgia before joining an integrated Army during the Korean War, then returning to the Jim Crow South. He watched the civil rights movement and integration unfold.

Though he has seen great change, he said he could not help but marvel at Tuesday’s events.

“I thought maybe my great-great grandchildren would see this, but not me,” Gibson said as he clutched his cane.

Gibson joined several hundred others, mostly students, faculty members and officials, in the auditorium watching CNN on a big screen.

Images of the new president were emblazoned on everything from shirts to buttons. Cameras were fixed on the screen, ready to capture memorable moments.

When the call came for everyone to stand as Obama took the oath of office, every member of the audience heeded it as though they were on the National Mall themselves.

FVSU President Larry E. Rivers spoke to the day’s significance for the future.

“It creates responsibilities for African-Americans as well as opportunities,” he said.

Brandon Wrice, a junior majoring in economics, seemed to understand that message.

“This is a great moment for everybody,” Wrice said. “I know it will drive me to achieve my goals.”

AT THE TUBMAN AFRICAN AMERICAN MUSEUM

Nearly 150 people packed around a large-screen TV at the museum to watch the inauguration.

The crowd, a solid mix of young and old, black and white, men and women, reflected the sense of unity that Obama spoke of often during his presidential campaign and inaugural address.

Many of those in attendance, old enough to have lived through the civil rights movement, reflected on the significance of seeing the nation’s first black president sworn in.

“I was always open to the possibility, and even (Martin Luther King Jr.) spoke of it also,” said Richard Keil, the museum’s founder. “When he started his campaign, I thought this person was so exceptional in anyone’s world that he holds hope and promise for all of us. It became a real possibility that he would become president. But I don’t think it’s completely hit me yet.”

People applauded, stood up and cheered at various points during the inauguration. They recited the Lord’s Prayer during the invocation given by the Rev. Rick Warren. They shared a glass of sparkling grape juice moments after Chief Justice John Roberts finished administering the oath to Obama.

Marguerite Farley of Macon, who brought the juice, said she was full of the optimism and hope that Obama’s election signaled.

“It’s just such a wonderful feeling knowing that things are going to change,” she said. “His personality and the aura he gives to the people surrounding him — you feel so joyous.”

John Newsom, a retiree who moved to Macon five years ago, said the makeup of the crowd at the Tubman was good to see.

“It recognizes the way things should be,” he said. “I thought his speech was outstanding. It hit on things in a direct way, what we can do together, how we can meet the challenges” that America faces.

AT THE TERMINAL STATION

The city projected CNN’s coverage of the inauguration onto a large, inflatable screen set up in the Terminal Station lobby. People filed in and out most of the morning, and about 30 were on hand when the president and vice president were sworn in.

In keeping with their counterparts on the National Mall, the audience watching from the historic train depot stood when they were asked to stand, prayed when they were asked to pray and applauded throughout.

“It’s a blessing in the making, you know what I mean?” said 42-year-old Ronnie Hightower. “It’s a victory for all mankind.”

Lilian Fort, 74, said she was glad to have a president that will address the entire nation’s concerns.

“I am just overwhelmed, and I’m just so glad I’m here to see this great occasion,” she said.

AT THE DOUGLASS THEATRE

Later Tuesday at the Douglass Theatre downtown, about 50 people raised a champagne toast to President Obama, his family, the U.S. Congress, American citizens and “to peace, hope and change.”

“We never know when it will be our opportunity to pull the sword out of the rock or when the cup will be passed to us. But we have to be willing and we have to be ready,” Bibb County Commission Chairman Sam Hart said. “This is a great day in America.”

The celebration followed a re-airing of the inaugural ceremony on a jumbo screen inside the historic theater.

Hildred Jones, a 55-year-old Macon resident, said she attended the public viewing despite watching the inauguration live earlier in the day.

“I saw it at lunchtime but I just had to come see it again,” said Jones, an employee at Robins Air Force Base. “The Douglass is a very inspirational place to be. This is a really historic occasion. “Because I couldn’t go to D.C., I want to be a part of it as much as I can.”

Jones said the location and the occasion made her think of her father, Walter Johnson.

“He was one of the first black police officers in Macon and he was assigned to work here at the Douglass,” she said. “He would be so proud of this day, so proud to hear Obama’s remarks about bringing everybody together, not excluding anybody, the country becoming a better success.”

Pat Smith, who visited the Douglass with her son, Dallas, said she lifted her glass to new leadership and progress.

Standing in sight of Terminal Station on Tuesday evening, Smith, a 69-year-old white woman from Warner Robins, recalled being a teenager and taking a bus from the Cherry Street station one day.

“It must have been 1955 or 1956. I was on the Trailways bus from Macon out (Ga.) 247 to Warner Robins. I went to school here in town. This was my daily bus. I was sitting near the rear and I decided to give my seat to an older black woman. I got so much criticism for it, so much,” she said. “I come from that era.”

“The thrill of today is that there’s no more criticism like that,” Smith said. “It makes me so happy and filled with joy.”

Telegraph staff writers Matt Barnwell, Julie Hubbard, Jake Jacobs, Ashley Tusan Joyner, Phillip Ramati, Natasha Smith contributed to this report.

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