Being A Part of History
By Daniel Gilbert/Media General News Service
Published: January 18, 2009
BRISTOL, Va.—It was a hot June day in a packed high school gymnasium where Betty Ferrier sat, watching history. She got up close to it. She listened to it.
And then, in a rush of people and the strobe of flashbulbs, she reached out and grasped the hand of the man who would be the first African-American president of the United States, and posed for a photograph with him.
In that moment, the fingers of now President-elect Barack Obama touched those of a woman who, 50 years ago, sold tickets at the Zephyr Theater in Abingdon, in an area restricted to black moviegoers.
That handshake – dealt countless times by Obama during his triumphant march to the presidency – conveyed a sweeping, epochal change that stirred millions of American citizens yearning for it.
Now the aura of history that has, from the beginning, cloaked Obama’s run, is drawing residents from Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee – areas that resoundingly voted for his Republican opponent – to an Inauguration that has generated unprecedented buzz.
“This is an extraordinary level of interest,” said U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., who has spent 26 years in Congress and seen five Inaugurations.
“There has never been this level of interest among Southwest Virginians,” the 9th District congressman said in a recent interview, noting that he has received “thousands” of requests for the 200 tickets his office was allotted.
The local residents en route are young and old, black and white, Obama supporters and those who voted for his Republican presidential rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain. They are staying at hotels as far as 80 miles outside of Washington, D.C. They are pulling favors from family members, friends of friends and crashing with strangers – all to get close to the vague but alluring prospect of being part of history.
They are coming, in Boucher’s view, “to be present for what is truly a pivotal moment in American history, and to be present for a moment when our nation will take a truly new course.”
But the phenomenon driving the crowds is perhaps most simply expressed in the interrogative, as Ferrier still does, with a note of incredulity: “Who would have ever thought we’d have a black president?”
Amy Williams cried when she watched Obama give his acceptance speech.
Williams, who runs a real estate investment company in Bristol, Tenn., supported McCain for president, saying his values more closely reflect her own. But as she watched the television cameras pan from tear-streaked face to shining-eyed supporter in Chicago’s Grant Park, the emotion of the moment reached through her living room, catching in her throat.
“I always – I have been impressed with him always,” Williams said of Obama in an interview last week. “I’m excited for what it does for race relations in our country.”
Williams will head to Washington this weekend with a two-, maybe three-fold purpose: Deliver her 16-year-old daughter to a youth conference; introduce a Brazilian exchange student to Washington; and, though she has no ticket to the ceremony, get as close to the action – to the making of history – as she can.
Williams has booked a hotel room in Strasburg, Va., for $89 a night. The rates for a hotel reservation in the nation’s capital, she said, jumped from $139 a night Saturday to $439 the next night.
She plans to commute back and forth between D.C. and the hotel, taking advantage of a parking spot a friend in Arlington, Va., has promised her, and braving the metro.
Granted, were it not for her daughter, she would probably be watching the Inauguration on television.
If there were a “problem,” Williams said, “I’d like to be very, very close – very, very near” to her daughter, Grace, a 17-year-old junior at Tennessee High School who is participating in the Presidential Youth Inaugural Conference.
“I wasn’t for Obama,” Grace Williams said. “But I’m excited to see him.
“I just think it’s amazing,” said the junior and Student Council president at Tennessee High. “It’s a huge step in history that we are electing the first black president. It’s being part of this moment in history. I just thought, to be there, up close and personal,” she said, leaving the thought incomplete.
Lucca Mendes, a 16-year-old from the city of Belém in Northern Brazil, is staying with the Williams family and had heard the names of Obama and McCain in TV coverage of the American election before coming to Bristol 5½ months ago.
During an interview, he correctly identified Obama as a Democrat and McCain as a Republican, adding that he favored McCain and tends to prefer conservatives.
“In Brazil, they talked a lot about the election,” said Mendes, who speaks fluid English with grammatical quirks similar to his peers. “When I got here, it’s, like, a historic election. I’m very excited to be part of history,” he said.
Ditto Adam Gambrel, an eighth-grade student at Abingdon’s E.B. Stanley Middle School and another participant in the same program as Grace Williams. He also rooted for the other guy.
“I wanted McCain to win,” the 13-year-old said in an interview.
But Gambrel, who squeezed in time to talk between school, jazz band and piano lessons, is OK with watching Obama take the oath.
“I’ve never seen an Inauguration before,” he said. “I think it will be a good experience, and I’ll be able to say I was there and I saw what they did ... and because it’s the first African-American president.”
Linda Gambrel, Adam’s mother, said she would drop her son off Saturday and pick him up Wednesday.
“Our family’s not going to stay,” she said.
Abingdon resident Kay Saul is staying with Susie Burgess – a woman she has never met, a friend of a co-worker who lives in a Maryland suburb north of Baltimore.
Saul, a longtime Democratic activist and state party delegate, has been a secretary at the Washington County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office for 24 years. A colleague put her in touch with Burgess, and Saturday, she planned to take off for her third inaugural experience.
Saul first encountered Obama two years ago at a Richmond fundraiser when he was still an obscure, if appealing, face in the U.S. Senate. She recalls being struck by his “charisma and intellect,” and when he stumped at Virginia High School in June, Saul recalls commenting to Boucher, “Rick, he’s going to be president.”
“I’m excited about the history of it,” she said in a recent interview, and the Obama paraphernalia she laid out on a table seemed to bolster her point: Obama buttons; a baseball cap with his campaign insignia; a watch with the president-elect’s likeness on the face; and an Obama doll that credibly reproduces the real Obama’s voice with his catchphrase, “Yes we can!”
Saul has planned for the occasion. She has picked out her inaugural outfit: wool coat, two to three pairs of socks, earmuffs and a scarf.
She has mapped out an itinerary: tour Baltimore on Saturday; take in entertainment on the National Mall on Sunday; attend Boucher’s constituent reception Monday; and make it to the swearing-in Tuesday. Then she’ll turn around and make a mad dash for Abingdon to be at work Wednesday.
Saul isn’t alone in her meticulous event planning.
Among residents seeking shelter in D.C., Ann Christ is one of the lucky ones. Her daughter, a freelance writer, lives downtown – a reasonable if lengthy walking distance from the ceremony. The traffic and crowds are “not off-putting at all,” said Christ, of Bristol, Tenn.
What has Christ preoccupied is another basic need: food.
“I’ve got reservations at three or four different places” for the same time, Christ said, adding she would cancel at the restaurants where she decides not to dine.
Christ, who has seated tickets for the swearing-in, also spoke of the historical significance of the event.
“I think it’s almost a cliché,” she said. “It’s a momentous time when the first African-American is sworn in. It’s a moment I want to be there for,” she said.
Getting There, At Last
For Ferrier, the moment is a long time in coming.
The lifelong Abingdon resident doesn’t like to dwell in the past, but when she met Obama in Bristol, her thoughts went to her grandchildren, imagining the very different world in which they would come of age.
Ferrier harbors no complaints about her own life, or none that she cares to discuss. She had just graduated from high school when she went to work as a nanny in Abingdon for two young children: a boy named Rick and his sister, Anne.
Rick, who would become her congressman, “always looked at me as a person,” she said. “I feel as close to Rick and Anne as ...” she trailed off, then picked up: “I feel very close to Rick and Anne.”
While she cared for the young Bouchers, Ferrier raised four children of her own, and worked various jobs: as an elevator operator; a ticket seller at the segregated Zephyr Theater in the 1950s; and as a residential adviser for the Blue Ridge Job Corps until her retirement. She never lived on public assistance, she proudly noted.
At some point before Tuesday, the Bouchers will ferry their one-time nanny to see the first black man take the presidential oath of office.
It already has been a long journey for Ferrier, who has lived to see the boy she once cared for rise to Congress and introduce her to Obama.
The import of this moment is difficult for Ferrier to verbalize.
“I feel so good,” she said. “I just feel so proud – that Rick Boucher got [Obama] down here, and that he had such faith in him.
“I feel such an honor of getting there, of being there.”