In D.C., Washington state residents thrilled on eve of inauguration

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 19, 2009 

WASHINGTON -- Thousands of Washington state residents gathered in the other Washington on the eve of the historic inauguration of Barack Obama as the nation's 44th and first black president.

They were here to share a dream, with one recalling a long-ago relative who was a slave and another remembering the feeling of being bused to an all-white school.

The lucky ones stood in long lines outside congressional offices Monday with 240,000 other people to receive their tickets to the actual inauguration. Others prepared to stand on the National Mall in near freezing temperatures with up to 2 million others and watch the swearing-in on giant viewing screens.

Those attending include the famous and not so famous.

Gov. Chris Gregoire will be there, as will Tacoma Mayor Bill Baarsma, Yakima Tribal Chairman Ralph Sampson Jr. and glass artist Dale Chihuly.

But so will school students from Tacoma and Kennewick, a Belfair couple who founded Grandparents for Obama, a retired college professor from Tacoma who owns a B&B in Zanzibar and gave inaugural tickets to her son for Christmas, and a Bellingham man who attended John F. Kennedy's inauguration with his grandfather when he was 12.

"It will be a magical day," said Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash.

The sense of excitement was already building Monday as the Metro subway system was jammed and crowds swarmed over Capitol Hill. Downtown streets, usually empty on a holiday, were busy. Cafeterias in the congressional offices buildings were full. A slice of pizza and chocolate chip cookies were the midmorning breakfast of choice.

Outside Union Station, hawkers offered long-sleeved Obama T-shirts for $10 while an ominous vehicle marked "Amtrak Police Bus" was parked nearby. At least 10,000 police and military troops were to provide tight security from the Capitol to the White House, including units specializing in nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

No one is quite sure how many Washington state residents were attending, but congressional offices had nearly 2,600 tickets. Some offices held lotteries to distribute the tickets, others did it first-come, first serve. But that count only includes those with tickets. Easily, hundreds more who couldn't obtain tickets will be on the Mall.

The city is awash in formal balls and not so formal balls. More than 10,000 people are expected Tuesday night to attend the official Western States Ball at the Convention Center, which includes 13 states west of the Rockies, including Washington, along with Guam and America Samoa.

Everyone has a story.

Les Purce's great-great grandfather was a slave at a Tidewater Virginia plantation who was freed when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Purce, who is president of The Evergreen State College, has a picture of his relative.

"Like so many Americans that gave so much to this country through slavery, segregation and Jim Crow, it would be hard for them to imagine this dream would ever come true," Purce said, adding that his great-great grandfather "couldn't have fathomed this would ever happen."

Leslie Braxton grew up in Tacoma's Hilltop neighborhood. When he was 9 years old, he and his sister were bused five miles every day to a school in University Place. There were only a handful of other black students and no black teachers at their new school.

"Every day riding to school we saw the difference and learned that money followed color," Braxton said, standing in the lobby of Sen. Maria Cantwell's office with his extended family to pick up their inaugural tickets.

Now a senior pastor at a church in Renton, Wash., Braxton graduated from Lincoln High School and played football at the University of Puget Sound.

"Barack Obama has walked through the door opened by Martin Luther King," Braxton said. "This is something I thought I would never see in my lifetime. The face of America has changed. But Martin Luther King's dream is not about individual achievement, it is about peace and justice for all. Barack's inauguration won't reduce the poverty rate by one percent."

Julie McGruder of Tacoma is a retired college professor, with a 38-year-old biracial son. For six months every year she operates her bed and breakfast in Zanzibar, which is part of Tanzania.

"The people in Zanzibar are extremely excited," she said. "One young man even appointed himself campaign manager and held rallies."

On Dec. 23, Sen. Patty Murray's office called McGruder to tell her she had gotten two inaugural tickets. Her son didn't have a clue what he was getting for Christmas.

Daniel Roy and his wife, Ann, established Grandparents for Obama, which eventually spread to 30 states. During the convention, the couple met Vice President-elect Joe Biden and his wife, and Michelle Obama's mother, Marian Anderson.

The Roys have a married daughter and one grandchild who live in Olympia.

"He is the love of our lives," said Daniel Roy. "He is what drove us (on the Obama campaign). He is our legacy."

Sabiha Khan, a history teacher at Kennewick's Kamiakin High School, spent time last year teaching her students about the election. On Tuesday, she and 30 or so of her students will get up at 4:30 a.m., board a bus for the 25-mile drive from their hotel to the Capitol.

"You wouldn't believe how excited the kids are," she said.

Kennedy's inauguration was the first for Harold Niven, 58, of Bellingham. He has also seen Richard Nixon's first inaugural, Bill Clinton's first inaugural and both those of George W. Bush.

"It's worth it," Niven said, saying he had been to so many inaugurations that he knows its going to be cold and involve a lot of walking and standing. "I'm happy to see someone the caliber of Obama taking office. But it is also fun to experience a sense of history."

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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