Amid 4-foot mounds of snow and remnants of road salt, five buses sat in line idling in the Jewel parking lot at 87th Street and the Dan Ryan Expressway. Bundled up to protect themselves from the chilly Chicago air, a crowd of people milled about, trying to find their assigned rides.
“Is this the bus for the black nurses group?” Willie Mae Lewis asked, clutching the pillow she brought to infuse some comfort into the overnight ride.
Lewis was directed to the last bus in line, a gold one chartered to take 52 friends, relatives, and members of the Chicago chapter of the National Black Nurses Association to Washington, D.C., for the inauguration of President Barack Obama.
The whirlwind trip boarding the bus at 4 p.m. Jan. 19 in Chicago and arriving early Jan. 20 in Washington, then heading back to Chicago the night of Jan. 20 was coordinated by Evelyn Collier-Dixon, RN, programs chairwoman for the chapter. Collier-Dixon began to plan the trip on Nov. 6 after Obama won the election. She says members of the chapter have been supportive of the Obamas for many years, even hosting Michelle Obama as a speaker at the National Black Nurses Day celebration in 2004.Military personnel direct foot and motor traffic on Inauguration Day.
“We had been involved in the Obama [presidential] campaign for 20 months,” she said. “And what better way to be a part of history than to be a part of the inauguration.”
As the bus made its way down the ramp to the expressway around 5:30 p.m., Collier-Dixon introduced chapter President Carolyn Rimmer, RN, who kicked off the trip with a rousing welcome.
“This is an exciting moment in our history,” she said, her hands shaking. “Today is not only a historic day for blacks in America but [also] a historic day for all Americans. People are thirsting for change and Mr. Obama offered us hope that, yes, change is possible.”
A cheer went up as Rimmer finished her welcome and passed the microphone to Rev. Patricia Price, RN, and Jo Ann Dean, RN, for a scripture reading and prayer.
The group’s excitement didn’t wane as the bus headed toward the Indiana border. Collier-Dixon passed sandwiches and snacks to the riders and warned there would be no sleeping on the way to Washington as she pushed her bingo ball roller to one side of a cardboard box and pulled out a DVD.June Shivers, RN, shows off inauguration souvenirs outside the Hilton in Dupont Circle.
“That’s because Evelyn works nights,” laughed one of the riders.
In the flickering light of the TV screen, Mickle Ward-Ellison, RN, MSN, LNC, took time to reflect on her life and what Obama’s presidency might have in store for the country.
“I’m proud of what’s going on right now because [blacks are] only [about] 11% of the population, so this took everybody [to accomplish],” she said.
Her optimism was tempered by a bit of realism, however.
When asked what made Americans ready to elect the first black president she replied, “It’s economics. When the green goes away, all that other stuff goes away.”
Ward-Ellison is interested to see what type of healthcare policies Obama will enact during his term.
“He seems to favor socialized healthcare,” she said, “but to what extent, I’m not sure.”
She hopes nurses will be able to influence the president and his healthcare policy choices.Gloria Ellis, RN, stands beside the bus that took her to Washington, D.C.
“I don’t know if he knows how integral we are [to healthcare,]” she said, “but I’m sure we’ll be trying to enlighten him.”
Collier-Dixon was right and little sleep was had as the bus rolled toward Washington. Late-night chatter, a stop at a rest area in Toledo, Ohio, and videos kept the bus lively until it reached Washington.
The bus hit the capital around dawn and after deftly navigating through traffic circles and one-way streets, the group unloaded at the Hilton in Dupont Circle for a quick breakfast.
Over clinking coffee cups and scrambled eggs, Lisa Thomas and Mary Gilmer, RN, shared how Obama’s election brought the two strangers together. The two women met while dining at Priscilla’s Ultimate Soulfood Cafeteria in Streamwood, Ill., when Thomas, who works for United Airlines, complimented Gilmer on her Obama T-shirt.
“I’m always so proud of my black nurses group,” said Gilmer. “So I was telling everyone we were going to the inauguration.”
Thomas smiled, “I said, ‘She’s going to the inauguration and I’m going with her.’ “
That joke turned into reality when Gilmer passed Collier-Dixon’s name and phone number along to Thomas. She signed up for the ride and pitched in by arranging breakfast at the Hilton and securing a warm resting spot at Faith and Action ministry in Washington.
After breakfast, the group got back on the bus to drive closer to the action. On the way to 6th and K streets, the enormousness of the event became obvious.
“This is way bigger than the Taste, baby,” said Willie Mae Lewis when she saw military personnel and their vehicles blocking some streets.
Disembarking the bus, the riders streamed in different directions, quickly joining the millions of inauguration-goers.
Rimmer, the group’s president, headed off in search of an entrance to the mall. Undeterred by being turned away from the first entrance, she filed into a traffic tunnel with the rest of the crowd and hoped for better luck at another entrance.
Walking along with the crowd, Rimmer thought about what an Obama presidency meant to her.
“Based on experiences I’ve had so far,” said Rimmer, “there was nothing there to lead me to believe that I would see this.”
But Rimmer said Obama’s demeanor has a way of uniting people from all walks of life.
“I think it’s already making small differences and that it’s going to continue to evolve,” she said. “People are not going to be so judgmental of each other and will be open to learning more and more about others.”
Rimmer continued toward the second mall entrance, stopping only for a moment to pull up her sock that had fallen down inside her shoe.
“I’ve literally walked my socks off,” she joked.
Unable to gain access to the mall at the second entrance, Rimmer started walking back to Faith and Action ministry to catch the ceremony on TV when the Capitol packed with members of Congress on their balconies became visible from the street. No audio or jumbotrons were in sight so Air Force Staff Sgt. Mark Barget shared his earpiece with Rimmer so she could hear Obama’s inaugural speech.
She listened, eyes closed, with her hand over her heart and quietly whispered, “That was so beautiful.”
While Rimmer was searching for a way onto the mall, June Shivers, RN, a petite 77-year-old, had already staked out a prime viewing spot.
“I saw a guy on top of a granite wall,” she said, “and I thought, ‘I can do that.’ “
Two men hoisted her up on the wall and she made her way to the top of a hill where she could see the Capitol and listened to the speeches on radios other crowd members had brought along.
Shivers was impressed with the camaraderie and caring the crowd showed each other.
“There were people of all different nationalities and that was just fantastic,” she said. “And people were all just so loving and kind.”
Kindness also was extended to the nurse’s group by Peggy Birchfield of Faith and Action ministry. She opened the doors of the National Ministry Center to the nurses so they had a place to get out of the cold, rest, and watch the festivities on TV.
After an exuberant and exciting day in Washington, around 5:30 p.m. the bus headed back to Chicago. During a dinner stop at an IHOP in Frederick, Md., Dale Hollingsworth, RN, shared her thoughts and memories of a changing nation.
“When I was 14 years old, I was marching with Dr. Martin Luther King in Louisville, Ky., singing ‘We Shall Overcome,’ and I was put in jail,” recalled Hollingsworth. “To be there today after doing that when I was 14 was extremely special.”
The bus ride back to the Windy City was joyful but much quieter than the ride to the nation’s capital. The exhausted travelers slept much of the way, resting and soaking in the history they had witnessed. At 9 a.m. Jan. 21, they arrived at the 87th Street parking lot, eager to sleep in their own beds and to see how this new chapter in American history will unfold.