The last time a new president was sworn in the only Vineyard party to make the news was an anti-inaugural street march complete with protest placards and a theme song.
For President Barack Obama, it was different. On Tuesday the Island collectively sat glued to the television screen to watch the first African American in history be sworn in as president. Crowds gathered at Island libraries, the Vineyard Haven synagogue and Balance in Oak Bluffs. Parties followed, with Balance given over to a free public party and a ticketed inaugural ball held at the Chilmark Community Center.
By 11 a.m., Balance was packed with excited citizens wearing patriotic hats and toasting a new era.
Among them Marie Allen, 78, current vice president and former president of the Island chapter of the NAACP, felt overwhelmed by the resonance of the political moment.
“Sitting here I was just thinking of when I was eight. I was put on a train from Boston to Virginia to visit relatives, and I remember how I had to get off in Washington to get on the Jim Crow train. As young as I was I knew there was something wrong about that. I thought, why do I have to get off this train? And it was the first time I saw signs for colored and white. Watching this brought back a lot of those memories.”
Ms. Allen was part of the march for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963.
“Dr. King permeates all of this. It’s a whole new beginning of his dream,” she said, “I’m so filled up with emotion I find it difficult to articulate what I’m thinking. He has a difficult road ahead with global and domestic issues; we must all be patient and have faith.”
Leslie Pearlson remembered her last inauguration experience.
“I was in my pajamas, with a scotch . . . crying,” she said. She cried today too, but this time she was smiling and sipping white wine with friends.
“These black men in their sixties who worked within the system, to see them suddenly having that ceiling raised breaks my heart,” she said, “but it also makes me so happy to see. It’s delicious.”
Dick Johnson remembered hitchhiking alone to Washington as a teenager and sleeping on the floor of a nearby cinema in order to protest Nixon’s inauguration in 1972.
“It was an angry time,” he said, walking up Oak Bluffs avenue to Balance. “The year before I had gotten my draft number. And there was a lot of intimidation that day trying to shake up the protestors before we marched. Now one of my daughters, a 16 year-old, read Audacity Of Hope. Today is a big deal. It’s different than anything I’ve seen in American politics. When I started high school, the old cheerleaders would chose the new cheerleaders, so all cheerleaders were white. And the school was 40 per cent black. I didn’t think I’d ever see it. ”
Neither did events coordinator Doris Clark.
“I didn’t ever think it would happen,” she said, “I said to my husband this morning, tell me this isn’t a dream. Even during the campaign when the momentum was building I didn’t think it would happy. Today, black, white, everyone’s happy.”
But Elaine King, who was busy taking pictures of the television and repeating one word — “Whoa” — was a believer from the start.
“Barack was always my man. From the offset I watched Obama and I had no doubt whatsoever,” she said.
One thing Ms. King, who is a Jamaican native and Florida resident, didn’t trust was the Florida vote count — so she traveled down from the Vineyard to cast her ballot rather than send it absentee.
What was she up to for the rest of the day?
“We’re going to pick up some Chinese food and go home and watch Oprah,” she said. “And celebrate.”
Hebrew Center Memories
In August 1963, two buses left Rockland County, N.Y., bound for Washington, where the riders made up part of the 250,000 strong crowd which heard Dr. Martin Luther King deliver his I Have a Dream speech.
Herb Foster, now of Edgartown, was on one of those buses, was part of that crowd. He still has the song sheets handed out on the day of that march in Washington He brings them out each year when he celebrates with the local NAACP.
And on Tuesday, the day after Martin Luther King Day, he could not help the tears as he watched an even larger gathering in the mall for the inauguration of Barack Obama.
Mr. Foster was one of the early arrivals at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center, thus securing himself a seat near the front, close to the big screen.
As the room quickly became packed with a couple of hundred people — including 38 fourth graders from the Tisbury school — he reflected on the decades of national evolution, leading to the election of President Obama.
“I served in a segregated Army,” he said. “And I remember I took with me a picture of my track team in high school. A [racially] mixed team. And the southern guys used to say all sorts of crazy things against it.
“And when you knocked down all of their arguments, the last one they had was ‘would you let your sister marry one?’ That was always the final one.
“And I would say: ‘I don’t have a sister, but if I did I’d let her marry anyone but you, you’re so stupid,’ ” he recalled.
So much has changed since then, he said, he still had trouble believing it. And yet the change is not complete.
“You know what bothers me?” he said. “I was watching Fox [news] yesterday, which I don’t normally do, and they were reading letters people sent in, really annoyed that the celebrations were going on prior to the inauguration.
“They were reading these things, some of which were frankly disgusting. In politically-correct kind of words, they were saying some really nasty things.”
(The television at the Hebrew Center was not tuned to Fox, but to CNN.)
No doubt about the politics of this crowd. They were not there just to watch history, but to rejoice in it. Many wore items featuring the face or the message of Obama.
They stood, clapping and cheering, when the President-elect was introduced.
They were not just Democrats, either, but overwhelmingly liberal and savvy Democrats. It showed in their reactions. The introduction of Diane Feinstein, a key, early Hillary Clinton supporter, brought just a smattering of applause; the introduction of pastor Rick Warren brought silence but for a couple of soft hisses. His sectarian prayer was received stonily, particularly in comparison with President Obama’s own ecumenical appeal to those of all faiths, and none. There was some scoffing laughter when Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts blew his lines during the swearing in.
They applauded President Obama’s implicit repudiations in his speech of the previous administration.
They loved it when he said America was ready to lead once more.
In general, the crowd at the Hebrew Center reacted in the same places as the crowd in the mall in Washington, but the reactions seemed just a bit different, a little less joyous perhaps, a little more reflective.
Not that the crowd was unemotional. They clapped in time to the Obama chants, they whooped their appreciation of Aretha Franklin’s souled-up version of America, they smiled and uttered soulful amens after Joseph E. Lowery’s benediction. A substantial subset of the crowd lingered to watch the departure of George W. Bush as his helicopter headed out of Washington.
After the swearing in was over, one of the few black people in the Hebrew Center audience, Natalie Dickerson, former President of the Vineyard NAACP, said she found it hard to put her feelings into words.
“I feel hopeful, extremely hopeful,” she said.
“But we all have something to learn from this and we all have work to do, internally and externally. I think we should take time to reflect on what our contribution can be to make positive history.”
Dancing at Dreamland
“It is a happy new world,” said Oak Bluffs selectman Duncan Ross on Tuesday night as people danced in Dreamland, a huge second-story space once occupied by a video arcade game room. “That is what I am telling everyone I meet.”
It was the Oak Bluffs version of an inaugural ball.
“This is what community is all about, to have people come and gather and celebrate,” Mr. Ross said.
The evening was free. A long list of contributors organized the event and brought food for the potluck table that extended more than 12 feet in length. Dishes ranged from lasagna to sandwich wraps. The dessert table alone provided a variety of chocolate delights to pumpkin pie.
The evening included an Island-made musical potpourri beginning with Tristan Israel and his band: Paul Thurlow on the bass and Nancy Jephcote on the violin.
Later it was Phil DaRosa, joined by Mike Benjamin and friends, including Steve Tully on tenor sax.
As a tribute to the new Obama administration, Mr. Benjamin and his band performed Yes, We Can Can. Sabrina Luening joined Mr. Benjamin on stage.
A giant television screen showed the inaugural balls in Washington, D.C.
Dennis daRosa, president of the Oak Bluffs Association, said: “I think a lot of people wanted to share this experience. They wanted to share in an atmosphere of community rather than sit alone at home and watch it on television.”
On Main Street at the Charter School
“There he is! Sousa, there he is!” cried third-grader Simone Vega to her classmate Sousa Breese as they headed for the lunch line at the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School on Tuesday. The plan was to have screens in many classrooms Web-casting the inauguration of President Barack Obama at noon, but a pretty big screen already was up and running in the wide hallway they call Main street, near the cafeteria window.
“Don’t bump the cart,” pleaded one of her teachers.
“This is big,” enthused school director Robert Moore as he explained the logistics of who would watch where. As it turned out, the plan was too big — too many computers logging on at once meant that classroom screens were freezing up all over the place, so lots of the elementary kids ended up back on Main street after lunch.
Wearing Mardi Gras-like beads of red, silver and blue around their necks, the first and second graders were the first to settle in. They would sit there, mostly still, for nearly an hour, fiddling with the beads only occasionally when their interest waned.
They had been warned by teachers full of anticipation: “When this starts you cannot be talking.” One child made a shadow puppet on screen as he found his spot, only to hear a sharp, simultaneous “no!” from several adults nearby waiting for the first glimpse of the new First Family. He got the message.
High schooler Jess Dupon was crossing the hallway when she saw Michelle Obama coming up to the platform. “Oh, she looks so beautiful!” Jess chirped as she made her way to the darkened classroom where the older students watched on a huge screen.
When the camera panned out to the huge crowd, one third grade girl remarked, “It looks like a whole area full of stones, pebbles, but it’s really people.”
The kids joined the chants of “O-ba-ma” as the new president emerged, and clapped with the adults when he said all Americans should be free to pursue their full measure of happiness.
Where there had been clatter in the kitchen and phones ringing and shuffling and shouting, there now was a silence unusual for this school. Maybe it was the sniffles from the adults around them, but even the youngest kids seemed to sense the import of the moment.
It was refreshingly different for them, of course. As one adult marveled at the diversity of the musical quartet — a Jewish violin virtuoso, an Asian American cellist, an African American oboist and a woman at the keyboard — one of the third-graders looked bewildered and said, politely but clearly puzzled, “Yeah, so?”
“Well, it’s just so wonderful to see that.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” said the brown-skinned girl cheerfully, before tripping off with three friends, one a Wampanoag, one an Asian and one an Australian.
Still teary, another teacher laughed, “He really is their president.” And then she winked, “but we elected him for them!”
Gazette managing editor Lauren Martin and reporter Mark Lovewell contributed to this story.