BALTIMORE — Over 40,000 people braved bitter cold last Saturday afternoon to give Barack Obama a warm greeting as he passed through Charm City on his way to the capital to be sworn in as the nation’s 44th president Tuesday Jan. 20.
The crowd packed War Memorial Plaza in front of City Hall and danced for sheer joy—and to stay warm—as the Morgan State University Choir sang. It was a family affair with parents bringing their children, bundled against the 15 degree cold, to be present as “history is made.”
Obama, his wife Michelle and their daughters had boarded a vintage railroad car at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station earlier that day for the whistlestop that retraced much of Abraham Lincoln’s journey to Washington in February 1861. Threats of an assassination by pro-Confederates forced Lincoln to travel through Baltimore incognito.
By contrast, the crowd of welcomers for Obama overflowed the plaza and filled side streets to watch Obama’s speech on big screens.
Obama told the crowd he began the journey in Philadelphia where the founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence with a stop in Baltimore where patriots repelled British invaders in the War of 1812.
Today, he said, the nation faces equally daunting challenges, two wars, and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Today’s crises, he added, require the same “perserverance and idealism that those first patriots displayed.”
He called for a “new declaration of independence, not just in our nation, but in our lives, from ideology and small thinking, prejudice and bigotry—an appeal not to our easy instincts but to our better angels.”
Listening in the crowd with her sisters was Shayla Webb, a retired secretary in the Baltimore Public Schools. She was filled with the sense of history being made. “Baltimore was a stop on the underground railway,” she said, recalling that Maryland gave birth to two great freedom fighters, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. “Fugitive slaves were hidden at the Orchard Street Church,” she told the World. “It’s time for a change. We’ve had eight years of hell. People have lost their houses, their jobs, their health care, their pensions. We can’t lay this whole burden on Obama. It might take eight years turn this around. Bailouts? I wish I could get a bailout.”
A few steps away was Darrell Witherspoon, his wife and their three grandchildren. “It was very important to bring my grandchildren not just because this is history but also to see the unity. I wanted them to see what can happen when the right things come together. Look at this crowd, people of all ethnic background and ages. I think Barack Obama is the right person at the right time.”
His granddaughter Taeja Dyson, 9, a 4th grader at Inner Harbor East Academy, said, “I’m really happy. Its my first Black president. I want to be a judge when I grow up.”
Kurt Teichert, his wife, Karen and their two grown children had driven down to attend the inauguration from their home in Massachusetts. “We stopped here in Baltimore thinking this would be a good chance to see Obama. We came down alongside the train,” Teichert said. “This was the first time our children voted for a president.” He shook his head in amazement at the enormous turnout on a frigid day. “Its like a sporting event or a rock concert,” he said. “Obama is so popular. I think what first attracted us to Obama is his background as a grassroots organizer, the way he managed his campaign, the fact that he was able to mobilize so many young people like our children who have been turned off by politics.”
His wife interjected, “It’s the energy. People want to get out and be part of this movement.” Teichert is a professor of environmental science at Brown University in Providence, RI. “I think we’re going to see very significant improvements in the way environmental issues are handled,” he said.
Lauren Hunt, a student in the School of Nursing at Johns Hopkins University, was dancing with fellow students to the beat of a rock band. “I think its so exciting to get people from so many different backgrounds,” she told this reporter. “My home is in Portland, Oregon. I’m glad Baltimore is a great place to study and learn because the city is a microcosm of so many of the health care problems across our nation. The health care system in our country is broken. I’m happy that Obama has so many ideas on improving the system to make it accessible to everyone.”
Angela Robinson Okoronkwo is an English teacher at Digital Harbor High School. The Morgan State Choir had just completed singing their soaring rendition of “Lift Every Voice And Sing.” With pride, she told the World, “I sang in that choir from 1993 until 1995. I graduated from Morgan in 1999. I think Obama is a leader who can pull this country together from all the chaos brought on over the last eight years.”
Obama, she added, is a good humanitarian who supports improvements in public education. “We need more school facilities, more equipment and materials, more benefits to help the teachers. It was a long, cold walk to get here. But it was worth the walk. It’s beautiful. Just look at all these smiling faces. We have truly made it to the promised land.”