When Barack Obama was set to be inaugurated as the first black U.S. president in 2009, there weren’t enough seats on area buses to fit all the people who wanted to go.
It was not enough to watch on television, or read about it in the paper. To be there was to be part of history. History can be made first, just once.
“I was right there in the middle of 2 million people,” said Billy Ramsey, a York Comprehensive High School student, 17.
This year the crowd is expected to be less than half – maybe a third or a quarter – of what it was in 2009, when almost 2 million people jammed into the National Mall near the Capitol.
Still, Jane Gilfillan’s group from York will be there. The honors world history teacher has taken school groups to every inauguration since 1992. This year, 54 students and adults from York’s high school and intermediate school will leave Friday on a bus, spend two days roaming D.C.’s monuments and museums and more, then watch the inauguration in person.
Bailey McKown, 16, went to see the historic 2009 inauguration and wouldn’t have missed the return trip.
“Last time, it was really life changing,” Bailey said. “I was in middle school, and I get there and it hit me: ‘I am watching the inauguration of the president of the whole country.’”
Billy Ramsey, a politics and government student, will represent York in the laying of a wreath at The Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery, across the river from Washington.
“It is a huge honor,” Ramsey said.
Gilfillan, a former York County Council member and breast cancer survivor who certainly believes that life is to be lived, knows from five previous inaugurals that the trip is a memory for students that lasts forever.
Groups in 1992, 1996 and 2000 often showed up on national TV, waving South Carolina flags together on the National Mall. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on Washington and New York, though, no pointy flagpoles are allowed.
“I can’t count how many kids later on who have said that this trip was the greatest thing they ever did in high school,” Gilfillan said.
Clover High School also is taking a group of students for the trip of a lifetime.
But at least one area group that went in 2009 has canceled a planned bus trip, and another bus trip that is still on has yet to fill all its seats. To lure more people to go, the bus trip that remains has cut its price down by almost half.
The reason seems clear – Obama is already president. History was made in 2009. The newness, the first time for the first black president, already happened.
Carl Dicks of Rock Hill, who organized a trip in 2009, said there were not enough people to fill a bus he had planned to charter.
“We had about 20, and that’s not enough,” Dicks said. “There is still enthusiasm for the president, and we had hoped to have enough people to make the trip financially feasible, but we don’t.”
Susan Woods of Rock Hill, founder of the Emerging Leaders Mentorship Program for Black Males, is taking a bus on a “Witness History Trip” – but less than half the seats have sold. The trip slashed its price to $90, with hopes to break even, Woods said.
That bus trip will leave late Sunday, spend the day in Washington on Monday for the inaugural, then come right back.
“I am one who could not go in 2009, so I want to see the inaugural and many of these young people will get a great chance to be there,” Woods said.
The inauguration in 2009 was for so many a can’t-miss event, but Obama supporters since were more fixed on re-electing Obama, said Adolphus Belk, a political science professor at Winthrop University.
“Four years ago, Obama’s inauguration was not politics as usual, but more like part of a social movement,” Belk said. “For so many people it was important to witness history.
“There was energy still for supporters to re-elect Obama, but it was geared for the election. There is a sense of ‘mission accomplished.’”
But for those students in York going to the inauguration, history is now – and on Monday, each will be right in the middle of it.
“I am so excited,” said Valerie Dawkins, 14. “This is a really big deal and people see it on TV, but I will be right there.”
Kaitlyn Spires, 14, expects the trip to be what 14-year-old kids expect: “Awesome!”