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Continued: Obama inauguration: 'I want to breathe it. I want to feel it.'

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Last update: January 18, 2009 - 7:54 AM
The Rev. Steve and Rosa Daniels will board a plane for Washington on Monday with the usual gear of winter tourists -- wool coats, a digital camera, warm walking shoes. They'll also be carrying the hopes of generations. ¶ The Apple Valley couple have a date with history, a moment they never expected to witness -- the inauguration of the nation's first black president.

When they were children in Mississippi, Rosa Daniels, now 55, helped her mother make civil rights signs while Steve watched his family dodge Klansmen's firecrackers.

"I'll be taking along all those memories, the pain, the disappointment, all of those dark days," said Steve, 57. "Bringing them along not to be sorrowful, or to still live in the past, but just to see how all of that has birthed this new day for us and for the world."

The Daniels family bought eight airline tickets within minutes of Barack Obama's election. Others will travel to Washington by bus or car. Some will sleep on friends' floors or stay in hotels hours away. Whatever it takes.

They are going because the inauguration means change. They are going because it brings them hope. But mostly they are going because they never thought they would see the day.

"You get emotional because I know the struggles ... we have gone through," said Barbara Doyle, her voice cracking, "the struggles that our parents and our grandparents have gone through."

Doyle was in grade school when she and her older sister, Gaynell Ballard, were visiting cousins in Kansas City. It was their first time in the South, and they stopped by the local Woolworth's as they had done a thousand times before in their native St. Paul.

This time, when they climbed onto the twirling stools to ask for a Coke, the woman behind the counter glared at them. She shook her finger and snapped the N word.

You ... have to go to the back counter, she thundered.

Gaynell and Barbara looked at each other, stunned. They slunk toward the door.

"It scared us," Ballard said. "We didn't know."

The girls' parents had tried to protect them from the overt racism that prevailed across much of the country in 1951. They could be anything they wanted to be if they worked hard, they were told.

That innocence was snatched away in an instant. They left the counter quietly that day, tears in their eyes.

We're normal people like they are, so why are they doing this to us? Ballard thought.

It's a vivid memory the sisters have carried with them ever since.

"I'll never forget that," said Ballard, a longtime social worker, now 67. "I'll never forget it."

This morning, the sisters are climbing aboard a chartered bus to Washington to witness what they consider the most historic event in their lifetimes. They'll be riding with other adults and some students from Harvest Prep School in Minneapolis, where both now work.

They are amazed to think about how much has changed.

"When they announced his presidency, I just couldn't stop crying," Barbara said.

• • •

The day Naima Richmond found out she was going to Washington, she couldn't stop walking around her Minneapolis home, too excited to sit still. By the middle of last week, she had everything laid out, folded and ready to pack: Clothes, toiletries and poems she wrote about growing up in the segregated South.

"I'm just like a kid, so excited," said Richmond, 76.

Many nights, she lay in bed thinking about what she will witness.

Is it real? Am I going? she thought. Oh my gosh.

This morning, she will climb aboard the Harvest Prep bus. Along the way, she plans to read some of her poems to the children on board.

A longtime social activist and Minneapolis resident, Richmond was an educational assistant caring for two Down syndrome children on a Minneapolis kindergarten playground about a dozen years ago when she found herself moved her to tears by a simple question.

Are you his mom? Are you her mom? The smiling children asked as they ran about the yard.

To adults, it wouldn't have been a question. The children she was caring for were white. She is black.

"They could not see the difference, and I was so moved by that," Richmond said recently, sitting in her north Minneapolis home. She has seen a lot of racial ugliness in her life. People have asked to touch her skin. People have asked about her hair, which she now wears in dreadlocks. At meetings as a social activist, she sometimes hasn't felt heard.

Obama's presidency will be a significant step in stopping society to judge people by differences, she hopes. But, she stressed, there's so much left to do.

"The people spoke," she said. "Now, if all these people can help make a difference, we're on our way to erasing racism. Well on our way."

• • •

Betty Hiller was just 12 the first time white kids moved to her school.

It was a big change for Eudora, Ark., where blacks had always lived on one side of town and whites on the other.

In 1970, she started the school year in junior high with a white teacher and white classmates. Even her track coach was white. They had a lot to learn about each other.

Are they going to be smarter than us? Hiller wondered. Will we sit on opposite sides of the room?

She was intrigued and hopeful. It seemed that a part of the world, once off-limits, was opening to her.

But it couldn't be that simple. A black teacher gave a white student a failing grade and was fired. Black students walked out in protest. Suspicious white parents escorted their young children to school, afraid to drop them off. At one point, the National Guard marched through the streets in battle fatigues, trying to quell a riot.

Through it all, though, the optimistic Hiller saw glimpses of what could be.

That track coach? She didn't seem to care about the color of a student's skin. She judged kids on their speed.

The white classmates? Many of them were friendly even outside of school, saying hello when she'd run into them downtown, despite their parents' looks of disapproval.

Integration "made us more human to each other, that we had the same aspirations," Hiller recalled.

When she was 14, Hiller visited her older sister in north Minneapolis, and it encouraged her even more. "This was the first place I'd ever gone where whites and blacks lived together and nobody was trying to kill anybody because they were together," Hiller said. "For me, that was like, 'Wow!' This is the way the world is supposed to be." She vowed to move to Minnesota when she graduated from high school.

Hiller has spent much of her adult life in Minnesota. She learned that the state has had its own subtle struggles with race. But slowly, she has watched it change, too: More diversity. More people willing to learn and discuss race.

Ten years ago, divorced with grown children, Hiller saw her world become integrated even further.

A white co-worker, a quiet and kind man, approached her at a gathering after work. They fell in love and decided to get married. They made a pact that they would stick together no matter what other people thought.

Both their families accepted it quickly, she said, and have come to love the new in-laws.

And now, her long yearning for racial harmony is embodied in Obama: "With him being half-black and half-white, he can see both sides of the picture."

She and her husband loaded up their car and headed east last week, to be there when Obama takes his oath. She can't wait for the feeling of pure joy.

"To be at the inauguration when he actually gets sworn in, I think it's just going to be phenomenal," she said, a glowing smile spreading across her face. "This is a turning point in America. ... I have so much more hope for this country."

• • •

Raymond Jackson will have hope, too, when he stands in Washington on Tuesday, listening to the crowd around him.

Legally blind, he plans to ride an overnight chartered bus leaving Minneapolis on Monday and returning Wednesday. It will be an exhausting trip, but Jackson doesn't care. "I want to breathe it, I want to feel it," he said.

He's already used to tough accommodations.

Last fall, he said, he spent three months in homeless shelters when he couldn't find affordable housing. Since life-long diabetes blinded him eight years ago, job opportunities have been scarce.

Now 53, he has a small, neatly maintained apartment in public housing and is trying to find a job. With a deep, resonating voice, he once hosted radio shows and is hoping to find on-air work again. He also spends time volunteering at a soup kitchen and trying to steer teenagers away from crime and into performing arts.

Obama's election left him elated.

"For somebody like me who has just recently really come face-to-face with so many of the things that President-elect Obama is talking about that has to be dealt with," he said. "It just -- it hits home."

Jackson said he wants to use the time on the bus to talk to others from the Twin Cities and come back with a plan for local change "because Obama can only do so much."

So he'll be there, on the National Mall, to let the new president know he's ready to help.

• • •

On Tuesday, Steve and Rosa Daniels will be surrounded by their family -- their grown children and their grandchildren -- thinking about the generation that has passed and the one just starting out.

"We'll be talking to them," Steve Daniels said of their deceased parents. "Look what you all did. ... Thank you for the sacrifices you made."

But they will also look at their 4 1/2-year-old grandson, Caleb, and his younger sister Jayla, who will be there on their parents' shoulders. They will be able to tell them that the sky is the limit, and mean it.

"To go to this event, oh my goodness," Steve Daniels said. "It is life-changing. Fulfilling."

Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102

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