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For thousands of Americans, there was only one place to be

Inauguration Day was a lens through which many interpreted their own stories.

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For some, getting to be there meant more than just witnessing history. Pauletta Washington, wife of Denzel, felt a personal connection. Her grandparents had worked in the White House kitchen, then for Secretary of State Dean Acheson.

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“And now I’m here, front-row center, to see a president that looks like me take the oath of office,” said Ms. Washington, looking toasty in her fur coat.

“The color of his skin is very important, but it’s really about his heart and his spirit.... I feel it so much, his hope, his encouragement, his inspiration, and I believe he will listen and hear, and I believe that he will act on what he hears. It’s not empty promises.”

Don King, the flamboyant boxing promoter, sporting a rhinestone-encrusted jacket decorated with patriotic themes, held court in Section 1.

“Did I think [Obama] was going to be elected this quick? No!” he said, posing for pictures with fellow inauguration-goers. “Anybody telling you otherwise, it’s a lie. I was hoping, praying it would happen, not for Barack but for the American people.”

“It ain’t about Barack,” King continued. “Barack is just gonna be that symbol at the top.... It’s the American people and the change in heart and mind, that’s what counts.”

But wasn’t King a supporter of George W. Bush, the just-departed Republican president? In fact, he was, and he’s proud of it. “I’m a Republicrat,” King asserted. “A Republicrat supports America and who’s best for America, whoever that may be. George W. Bush, irregardless and irrespective to all the problems he may be beleaguered with, he included us.”

Former President Bush “prepared the path” that would enable the likes of Obama to reach the top, by putting prominent African-Americans – Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell – in key administration jobs, King said.

More touching, though, than all the attention-grabbing celebrities were the elderly black men, many in wheelchairs, seated off to the side. They were members of the Tuskegee Airmen, an all-black fighter squadron that served in World War II at a time when the military was segregated.

Lorenzo Holloway, a 91-year-old Tuskegee airman from Detroit, said he would have been happy to stay home and watch the inauguration on TV, but his son wouldn’t allow it. When the invitation came for Obama’s inauguration, he planned his trip to Washington.

How did it feel to be here? “Cold!” he joked. Then he added: “As many times as I’ve been to Washington, I’ve never been to anything like this, and it’s really something.”

The ‘race talk,’ right on the Mall
The long hours in waiting seemed to spark a conversation about race, opportunity, and the future, right in the middle of it all on the Mall – the closest thing the US capital has to sacred, civic space.

Obama’s inauguration changes “everything,” said Sarah Donaldson, a reading teacher from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., who traveled with family members to New York and then drove to D.C. to witness the piece of history that Obama’s inauguration represented to her.