Locals witness Obama’s inauguration

Published 8:33 pm Thursday, January 22, 2009

WASHINGTON, DC – It was a day unlike any other.

81-year-old Lula Mae Perry solemnly sits near her 67-year-old sister, 61-year-old daughter, and 64-year-old Goddaughter. They are in the nation’s capital, on a shuttle bus, on their way downtown in a sea of hundreds of other buses.

Perry is the oldest of a group of 36 senior citizens from Hertford and Bertie counties who rode on a bus from Ahoskie to D.C. to witness the inauguration of the nation’s first African American president.

Perry gazed out of the window as the shuttle pulled up on North Sixth Street. She was at a loss for words as she saw hundreds of thousands of people slowly walking in the streets towards the National Mall, hoping to get a glimpse of the swearing in of the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama.

“I feel really proud that we are here together and standing up for him,” said Perry.

The rambunctious senior said racism is all too familiar to her and her family. Her great-grandmother, Louissa Coffield, was a slave on a plantation in the town of Colerain in Bertie County just a few miles from where Perry was raised and still resides.

Perry said “Lou”, as the family nicknamed her great-grandmother, babysat her slave master’s children. Coffield died at 108 years-old.

“It makes me feel real proud to see that we have come a long way with President Barack Obama from when Lou was a child,” she said. “Lou had it hard. Although, I experienced racism coming up, I thank God that I didn’t have to live that way.”

As a child, Perry said she had to walk 15 miles to school every day as a school bus carrying only white children passed her by. Perry said decades ago, blacks were not allowed to enter the emergency room from the front door at Roanoke Chowan Hospital in Ahoskie.

“If something happened to me or my family, we had to enter the back way and wait,” she recalled.

“It’s thrilling. I feel so lucky to be able to witness this with my mother,” said 61-year-old Marion Chamblee, Perry’s daughter.

Perry’s Goddaughter, 64-year old Hilma Flood of Winton, was not able to stand with her parents. Flood explained that although her parents have passed away, she said they were by her side spiritually.

“Today I felt their presence, my parents and my deceased husband James,” Flood said. “They were all there with me because I know if any one of them were alive they would have been standing right here. They were with my spirit.”

The seniors lodged at a hotel in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Twenty-eight of the 36-member group boarded the bus on Tuesday morning to Washington to witness the inauguration with nearly 1.5 million other onlookers.

The seniors did not travel the farthest to the nation’s capital. A group flew all the way from Kenya in Africa, which is the president’s father’s native country to see the swearing in and inaugural parade first hand. They danced and sang spiritual chants in the streets.

“We were elated to be in the crowd of people,” said Chamblee.

“It’s almost indescribable. You almost had to be there to experience it,” Flood said. “It’s indescribable to be a part of history. Everybody was on the same page and the same accord. Everyone united as one. You meet people who you don’t even know and just hug them. It was so rejoicing.”

“It was really exciting. I just felt so happy. I just had to hold back the tears because it was just so touching,” expressed 66-year-old Maggie Gaskins, the younger sister of Perry.

Gaskins and Perry were two of 21 siblings who grew up on a farm in Old Trap, in Bertie County.

“Words can’t describe how I felt. It’s an experience that I will never ever forget. All of the anticipation was worth it,” expressed Flood who is a child of the civil rights movement. “His inauguration symbolizes that we have come a long way as African Americans. All of the hard work we’ve done from slavery until the civil rights movement to now with President Obama. It’s truly amazing, how far we’ve come.”

Flood’s parents were very active in the 1950s and 60s during civil rights movement. They would take her as a child and teenager with them to sit-ins, boycotts and protests.

Flood, who is originally from Portsmouth, Virginia, said she protested businesses across the state like W.T. Grant and Woolworths in Portsmouth, along with L. Snyder’s and Smith & Weltons department stores in Norfolk.

“It came back full force today; it evolved into reality. It felt like what we did years ago was not in vein,” Flood said.

Flood remembers meeting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“Dr. King came to the Metropolitan Baptist Church in Suffolk to show our communities how to peacefully protest,” she recalled.

“I thought about Dr. King and his assassination during the swearing in,” said Chamblee. “I just hanged my head and prayed. I prayed that God would keep our president safe and let him do what God has planned for him to do.”

Chamblee said the swearing in ceremony brought back a painful memory of when she was a child and saw a cross burned in her front yard.

“The cross burning passed in my mind. I had a flashback to the how ugly people treated blacks in the past,” Chamblee noted.

Chamblee added, “I’m expecting him to do what he said because it’s going take him some time but we have confidence that the lord is going to show him how to do it,” said Chamblee.

With the economy at its lowest it has been in decades, Flood is hopeful the new President will help improve the nation’s financial system.

“I expect him to do a good job, balancing budgets and getting everything back together. It will take a while like he said, but I believe he can do it” said Flood.

Gaskins feels the economy is important to fix, but she said she would like to see President Obama get started on something that hits closer to home.

“I would like him to change improve health insurance availability for seniors. I know a lot of seniors who cannot afford the medicine. It’s just too high of a cost for them. I hope there’s something he can do,” explained Gaskins.

Obama has attested to Gaskins’ claim before. The President has publicly spoke about his own mother who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and was denied proper treatment because of her lack of affordable health insurance.

The president promised during his campaign to try to expand public programs to allow all citizens to buy in to affordable healthcare.

After the president’s swearing in ceremony, despite the million of spectators, the seniors made their way back to their bus.

Perry looked up with an expression of peace on her face. “I hope everybody will try to do their best and help him carry us on like it has never been done before, because he has a load. His plate is full. It’s been filled for him and I pray to the Lord that he can clean it.”