What Does Inauguration Mean for You?
By David Nicholson
My grandfather saved things -- church committee records, minutes from the local chapter of his college alumni association, and complete editions of The Washington Post and The Evening Star from Dwight Eisenhower’s 1953 inauguration.
Which is how I know, after reading the brown and flaking pages, that compared to Barack Obama’s pending bridge-closing, security-conscious inaugural, Eisenhower’s was a more modest affair.
The crowd at his swearing-in was estimated at 125,000, and it was only the second to be televised. About 750,000 watched the parade, then the largest inaugural crowd ever. After the parade -- The Post said it went on “into the darkness” -- some 14,000 celebrated at two (yes, two!) balls. The next day, officials at Union Station reported that trains had been jammed with at least 140,000 passengers.
I’m not sure exactly why my grandfather saved the newspapers about Eisenhower’s inauguration. A District resident, he was interested in politics and current events; the papers he left contain hundreds of crumbling clippings. And he had a keen enough sense of the historic to take his children to Marian Anderson’s concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial Easter Sunday 1939, and then later that same year to witness the first visit to the United States by a British monarch, when King George VI came to Washington at Roosevelt’s invitation. Yet my aunts and uncles say he never took them to an inaugural parade.
Perhaps the reason he saved the papers is as simple as this: He was born in 1883, 20 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, so while he had no direct experience of slavery, he was close enough to it to have heard stories told by men and women who themselves had been slaves. Like many black people of his generation, he believed black Americans owed a debt to Lincoln and the Republican Party. That belief represents a kind of old-fashioned faith in America, a faith that, sad to say, wasn’t always rewarded in my grandfather’s life.
He retired after 34 years in government service, ending as a General Services Administration electrician. He had a college degree -- a memo he wrote recommending changes in lighting at the GSA is a model of clarity and economy -- but he was a black man in a white world. For years he did the work of a master electrician, without the title or the pay, watching whites he’d trained get promoted over him.
Still, he kept his faith, and before he died in 1956, he saw all eight of his children finish high school, seven attend college (six graduated), and one receive a master’s degree.
As he carefully folded and put away his copies of The Post and The Star, my grandfather could scarcely have imagined that 56 years later a black man would be elected president of the United States. Yet in ways I can’t quite articulate, it’s precisely because of his struggle, his sacrifice and his faith in America, that we can eagerly anticipate the history-making inauguration of Barack Obama.
I’ve set aside my own copies of the newspapers with the news of Obama’s election and I’ll be keeping those about the inaugration. Maybe, just maybe, in 56 years, my own grandson will come across them and reading about how amazed we were, appreciate the significance. And wonder what all the fuss was about.
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