The group, 36 people strong, packed a chartered motor coach with luggage, cold weather gear and a communal sense of history. Susan Johnson works for Zeta Phi Beta and helped organize the trip, which she took with her son David, a second grader.
“I want to be able to say that we were there and were a witness to history,” Johnson said. “I wanted a memory that was more positive and [to] share that with him and make sure he can recount the story himself.”
The trip took the bus through Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Maryland before reaching the group’s hotel in Virginia, just outside the District of Columbia.
Torlando Hakes, an Indiana University art major, who went along for the ride, said he identifies with the new president in a personal way and was excited to see the ceremony.
“I do come from a biracial family. My father is African-American; my mother is white,” Hakes said. “Hearing both of their stories, about them being the first kids in their schools to come forth in interracial couples, hearing their stories had helped me identify with my heritage, where as I feel if they hadn’t been sharing those things with me it would be a little bit more ambiguous to me as to who I am as an individual. It’s just going to be a great story that I can share.“
Hakes works at Bloomington’s Banneker Center, which serves the city’s youth. He says the trip’s participants, about half of which were children, will remember the day differently than if they had seen it on television.
“I do think that they will be able to remember a lot of things that they see, and that they will be able to say that they were there. The future and the impact of this event will definitely hold a stronger place in their heart than other kids who won’t have this opportunity,” said Hakes.
Zeta Phi Beta received a grant which allowed it to organize the trip, giving seats on the bus to winners of an essay contest. Susan Johnson said she’s glad the contest winners were able to bring so many of their children to the ceremony.
“Being a part of an African-American sorority, the point of the organization is to do for others what you can,” Johnson said. “Being a service organization, it was already in our nature to do it, but at this scale, we hadn’t tried this before, so I’m glad we were able to accommodate so many young people; so many children to come on the trip who have never even been out of the state of Indiana.”
On the morning of the inauguration, the bus drove the group from Virginia to Washington’s RFK Stadium, where shuttle buses took groups from across the country to the National Mall.
The mall teemed with people. Suddenly, the group of 36 had multiplied into a throng approaching two million, packing every inch of land from the Capitol to the Washington Monument, a distance of about two miles.
The ceremony ran late, but after about five hours in the windy, sub-freezing conditions, the group departed, still marveling at what had transpired.
The sheer amount of diversity I saw in the crowd, I mean I saw people from all walks of life; I don’t think any other president could have brought that kind of unity to inauguration of all things,” Johnson said. “I was looking at people speaking different languages, of different skin tones, and of various faiths, and all in one setting and I don’t think I’ve ever been in that type of setting.”
But it’s Angela Carter, who won seats on the trip for herself and her ten- and 14-year-old children by writing about her grandmother’s struggle with segregation, who summed it up best.
“I was blessed to be here, blessed with the opportunity of a lifetime,” she said. “For the first time in my life I feel a part of something.”