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Inauguration Update: Travelers From Afar


This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne with Steve Inskeep at the U.S. Capitol. There's a festive atmosphere on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., this morning. Hundreds of thousands of people are gathering there to witness the inauguration of Barack Obama, of course. Among them is a group of beauticians and barbers from New York state. NPR's Margot Adler accompanied them on their bus journey here to Washington, D.C., and joins us now to talk about them. Margot, last time we spoke earlier this morning you were coming down 18th Street. Where are you now?

Hello, Margot, can you hear us? Margot? OK, I think we actually - we're going to lose Margot there. But we have in the studio with us our own Linda Wertheimer, of course, senior national, senior political correspondent. I'm going to take a guess at your title. Sometimes I forget. So, why don't we speak a few minutes?



MONTAGNE: So, why don't we speak a few minutes? You haven't been out yet in the crowds - going to go a little bit later.

WERTHEIMER: No. But it is - this is an inauguration in which so many people are headed for the Mall. They're headed for the back end of the Mall down by the Lincoln Memorial where they will not possibly be able to see anything except for the Jumbotron screens which are left from the big concert. So, everybody just somehow wants to be in the presence of the event, and I think it's going to be quite a remarkable thing.

MONTAGNE: Well, Linda, thanks very much. We're going to actually turn to our correspondent Ina Jaffe. She's been traveling with another bus caravan. I think we have her on the phone now. Ina, are you there?

INA JAFFE: Yes, I am.


MONTAGNE: OK, well, when we spoke to you yesterday - and actually we've heard from you earlier this morning - you were in Louisville Kentucky in the beginning. Where are you now? Where have you got to?

JAFFE: I am now on L St. near 20th. We have finally parked. We have finally gotten off the bus. It was quite an odyssey. There was no traffic. They have the streets clear as people who live in Washington have been lamenting because they can't drive anywhere. But we couldn't find a place that we could keep all of our buses together, and we wanted to keep the four buses from Louisville together so that we could all come back and find our stuff at the end of the day.

But this particular caravan is sort of part of a larger group of 33 buses coming from eight different cities. All are either friends or relations of James Linton(ph) who organized a local tour. And they all wanted to park together. And I've just been told by Mr. Linton that we have 17 of the 33 buses now successfully parked. And people are starting to get out of them and stream towards the Mall.

MONTAGNE: Well, that's a start. But I mean, the time was getting pretty close to the inauguration. Are they all going to make it and get into those crowds?

JAFFE: I guess it depends on how fast they walk.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAFFE: We hope so. And they certainly are very motivated.

MONTAGNE: Well, tell us about the trip then, since you've just arrived here, what happened? What are the moments that stick out for you?

JAFFE: I'm not sure I heard everything that you asked me. But if you're talking about the trip we took yesterday, we drove through some pretty bad weather. The interstate was down to one lane, and a pretty snowy lane at that, in some spots. But we made it to Baltimore just an hour or two later than we expected to. And we overnighted in Baltimore. And then it was clear sailing all the way into town. We just couldn't find a place to leave the bus.

MONTAGNE: You know, when this group that you are going with - I mean, did they have stories to tell while you were riding along of their own histories?

JAFFE: Oh, of course. We talked to so many people. And I would say that history is the word here. I mean, not only that this is an historic moment, which you hear from everybody, and yet people just can't stop themselves from saying it because it means so much to them, but also their personal history. We talked to a woman who came from a family - I heard her grandparents were sharecroppers in Mississippi. And she felt she needed to be here to honor them. We talked to a young man, 19 years old, who knows that he didn't sacrifice what some of the pioneers of the civil rights movement did, but he felt it would be a dishonor to them if he didn't come here to represent them, since some of them aren't around here to do it anymore.

MONTAGNE: So some of these people are a little bit getting on in the years, but they're going to - you guys are going to walk over to the Mall?

JAFFE: I'm sorry. I couldn't hear you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Oh, sorry. Well, thank goodness we're hearing you just fine. And thank you, Ina. I know we'll be talking to you later in the morning.

JAFFE: OK. Thanks, Renee.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Ina Jaffe who has arrived in Washington, D.C., after traveling with a group from Louisville, Kentucky.

And we turn now to someone who does have - or a story of a woman who has many, many memories. The inauguration of the nation's first black president stirs deep emotions, of course, among African-Americans who lived through segregation and the struggles for civil rights. That one person is 105-year-old Ella Mae Johnson. She came from Cleveland to watch Barack Obama take the oath of office. NPR's Joseph Shapiro caught up with her here in Washington, D.C. And he's here to tell us a little about her story, which has been changing as the days go by. To start, although quickly, with Ella Mae herself, Joe...

JOE SHAPIRO: She's an amazing woman. First of all, because she's 105 and she has witnessed all of this history. She was born in 1904. She just celebrated her birthday. She went to - she spent her career as a social worker. She went to Western Reserve University in Cleveland. She wasn't even allowed to live on campus because of the color of her skin. And she wanted to be here today. And she lives in a - now in an assisted living facility in Cleveland, and they helped her come.

MONTAGNE: And you know, we played a little tape earlier that you had gotten when it was pointed out to her by a nurse that it was going to be very, very cold. We're almost getting bored with this whole idea of cold - but it is very, very cold. And we're talking about someone 105 years old. And her response was basically...

SHAPIRO: She said - they said, do you want to reconsider this? It's going to be a lot colder. It's not going to be just a matter of being out for an hour. It's going to be hours and hours and hours. And she said, yes. And those are the problems, but I'm going. There's no way you can turn me back.

MONTAGNE: So she's here now, Ms. Johnson, I believe.

SHAPIRO: She's here. I just left her about half an hour ago. She's got into her seat at the Capitol. Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, her home state, got her some good seats. And she's there with a nurse from Judson Park, the assisted living facility where she lives.

MONTAGNE: And she'll be, you know, may I say, she'll be watching the ceremony from what? What kind of...

SHAPIRO: Oh, she'll be right there. She's right in front of the podium. And she'll be watching it. And she's all bundled up in a sleeping bag, and you can barely see her. There's just - just her nose is showing. She's - they bundled her up well in hats and scarves and jackets. And then the final thing was she's in a wheelchair. They lifted her out of the wheelchair, they put a big blue sleeping bag on her and she's bundled up from head to toe. And as they're pushing her through the line to the Capitol, people would learn that this a woman that's 105, and people came up and they congratulated her and - or they wished her a happy birthday because her birthday was last week. And just people wanted to come up and thank her for being there and congratulate her.

MONTAGNE: You know, we have a little bit of time here, which is a little bit unusual. We've been talking about the inauguration, but in your time with her, Ella Mae Johnson, did she tell you a particular story about her life that really sticks with you?

SHAPIRO: Well, I sort of like the idea that she's not just a witness to a century of black history, but she's also has been an actor. And I like the fact that she was a young woman from Texas. She got a scholarship to Fisk University in Nashville in 1924. And there were some student strikes then - the activist and writer W.E.B. Du Bois came to speak. He was a graduate of Fisk. And he came back and he criticized the - there was a - the man who was the president was a white man, and he was criticized for being paternalistic. And Du Bois' speech led a strike, and Mrs. Johnson was one of the students who went on strike, and they changed things. They actually got that president to step down. Now it'd taken till 1947 till Fisk got a black president, but she was an early civil rights activist, you could say.

MONTAGNE: All right, Ella Mae Johnson. And thank you very much for joining us, NPR's Joe Shapiro.

SHAPIRO: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.