North Carolina residents enjoy D.C. inauguration

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 20, 2009 

WASHINGTON – A crowd of nearly two million never sounded so silent as in the moment when Barack Obama took the oath of office just after noon Tuesday.

Then, as cannons boomed, strangers hugged one another. They cheered and waved scarves in the air. Some just stood, tears streaming down their faces.

Emotions have evolved since November. On Election Day, many in North Carolina felt disbelief, amazed that America had elected a black man as president. Tuesday, they celebrated.

For Virginia Tillett, 67, of Manteo, N.C., the moment was just what she expected after growing up under the strong tutelage of a grandmother and mother who taught her that skin color didn’t matter.

"Our parents told us we could do and be anything," said Tillett, a Dare County commissioner. "And we believed them.

"It took all these years for Barack to be here, but deep down we all knew he would be here,” Tillett said. “Being here is like listening to voices from the past. My grandmother saying, 'You can do it.' My mother saying, 'Didn’t I tell you?' "

Many in the state were amazed that North Carolina went blue for the first time since 1976, when Jimmy Carter was elected.

"North Carolina transcended itself in going with Obama," said Julianne Malveaux, president of Bennett College, a historically black women’s college in Greensboro. "I think we're seeing signs of progress. This moment is also a moment for the state."

The state was there. Thousands of North Carolina residents joined more than a million others in trying to crowd onto the Capitol grounds and the National Mall, braving temperatures in the 20s.

"I know I'm here representing all my fellow Tar Heels," said Kendra Cotton, 31, of Durham. "This is my Super Bowl!"

Some residents had tickets near the podium, where they could see Obama up close. Others were back watching on Jumbotrons, while still more never made it onto the packed Mall.

Karen Joyner and her family ventured twice onto the Mall early Tuesday, only to be forced back by crowding so extreme that police shut down a nearby Metro subway station.

Joyner, her husband, Mike Sandin and son, Will, 11, had traveled with others from Raleigh's Endeavor Charter School. The family finally squeezed near the Washington Monument but were packed so tightly it felt dangerous.

"You couldn't take a Kleenex out of your pocket to wipe your nose," Joyner said. They retreated to a nearby restaurant, ordered hot chocolate and happily cheered with the crowds there.

Closer to the Capitol, Ian Palmquist, 31, of Raleigh, sang along with the crowd when now-former President Bush appeared on the big screen: "Nah, nah, nah, hey-hey-goodbye…”

"It was an amazing day,” said Palmquist, who works as executive director of Equality N.C., a statewide gay rights organization. "It was just great energy."

Willie Pearson, 18, a senior at Southeast Raleigh High School, came to the inaguration with a Lead America youth conference. By 5 a.m. his group had found a spot near the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. Many of the students slumped onto the cold ground and fell back asleep.

But after the sun rose, the group grew jubilant. Pearson held his camera overhead to capture the mass of people. He chanted "O-bam-a!" and fell silent for the inaugural speech.

"When Obama speaks, it’s like you can tell he means business," Pearson said. "It's like reality is possible."

So many emotions on Tuesday. A grieving Phyllis Barnwell, 77, of Raleigh brought photographs of her late son, Tim, and her husband, David.

Tim Barnwell, 34, was murdered in a robbery last year in Raleigh. David Barnwell, a jazz deejay in southeast Raleigh, died Dec. 8 of a stroke.

The couple had watched the election in November on television, weeping as Obama spoke.

Then, in Washington, she watched the ceremony from the National Press Club. She thought of her son and husband most at the end, when the Rev. Joseph Lowery began his benediction with lines from "Lift Every Voice and Sing," known as the black national anthem.

"It's one I taught to Tim, that David and I always sang with gusto, and I knew they liked that song almost as much as I do," Barnwell said.

For many who grew up in the state's Jim Crow era, history circled back on itself.

As a fourth-grader in 1964, Joy Vanhook Nelson helped integrate Aycock Elementary in rural Orange County.

Racists called her names. The high-school student who drove the elementary school bus insisted she and her black classmates sit at the back.

"I'm just elated," Nelson said. "Growing up in the hard South, integrating my elementary school and then to see this – a black president – you know what I think about that."

Tillett, the Dare County commissioner, had a hard time describing Tuesday's emotions.

"Unless you’re an African American in the United States, you cannot explain that feeling," she said. "It's not an angry feeling. It's an emotional feeling deep down inside where all you can say is ‘Thank you, Jesus.'

"This moment is my moment. And at 67, I’m glad I was able to see it.”

Staff writer Ryan Teague Beckwith contributed to this report.

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