Watchdog Blog

Mary C. Curtis: A Whistle Stop in Charm City

Posted at 11:35 pm, January 17th, 2009
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What a homecoming!

The Obamas and the Bidens — on their whistle-stop train trip from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. — made a stop in Baltimore, where I was born and raised. It’s where I was once refused entrance to an amusement park on the Baltimore County line because of the color of my skin.

Did that really happen?

It’s hard to imagine as I looked at the crowd on Saturday – tens of thousands, every age and race represented – jammed against one another in War Memorial Plaza downtown. It was one way to stay warm, as they listened attentively to the Morgan State University choir and waited for Barack Obama.

I loved my Baltimore, “Charm City” as it’s called, when I was growing up. But it was a city of neighborhoods, and you pretty much stayed in your own. When you ventured over the line, you were liable to get at least your feelings hurt.

It’s still a city with problems, right now a mayor under indictment and blocks of boarded-up houses. The people who streamed into the city hours before the inauguration train’s scheduled late-afternoon stop were more interested in hope.

Andre Walters of Windsor Mill, Md., waited for the metro at the Milford Mill stop. “This is history in the making,” the 41-year-old information technology programmer said to everyone and no one in particular. His thoughts were on president-elect Barack Obama’s economic stimulus package. “Tax breaks for businesses that retain hiring and start hiring, putting the American people first,” that’s what’s needed, he said during the ride we shared with my sister and others who had wisely left their cars at home.

A disembodied voice over the metro loudspeaker announced that War Memorial Plaza was filling up. Walters was not discouraged. “I want to hear his voice, his thoughts, his intentions for the country.” Walters had brought his girlfriend’s 21-year-old daughter, Jacqueline Wouldridge, a nursing student. This was her first presidential election vote. “It’s the first time I felt I belonged here,” she said.

My sister, Janice, wavered, but not for long. This was something she had waited a long time to see and hear.

In his speech, Obama honored Americans who went before him, “willing to put all they were and all they had on the line — their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor — for a set of ideals that continue to light the world.”

This being Baltimore, he paid tribute to the troops at Fort McHenry, who fought back the British, shored up America’s young and fragile democracy and inspired “a poem that became the Star-Spangled Banner.” In a subtle touch, Michelle Obama and Jill Biden wore purple scarves, crowd pleasers in a city that can taste a Ravens playoff win.

I’ve heard Barack Obama speak in a lot of cities since 2007, and I’ve lived in a lot of cities since I left my hometown. But I was proud of the face my imperfect Baltimore showed on Saturday.

On the metro back to my sister’s house, Angel Monroe, a 30-year-old social worker as pretty as her name, didn’t remember much about Obama’s speech. She was “just taking it all in.”

She works with 12- to 19-year-old boys in a group home, who have trouble just making it from day to day. Perhaps, she said, with Obama’s example, people’s attitudes toward themselves will change. She doesn’t expect miracles, but will watch the inauguration with the young men she works with – and hope.

First published on the Inauguration 2009 blog for 90.7 WFAE, a Charlotte NPR station.

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