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Inauguration signals new era - World War II vet 'knew it would come'

By / January 20, 2009

afp/newscom

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Some stories today need to be told. William Holton’s is one.

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Standing a few blocks from the White House, having just heard Barack Obama take the oath of office, the 81-year-old World War II vet says he “always knew” this change would come.

Confident
He was confident, even back when he was on a segregated ship fighting for freedom in the Philippines. He didn’t give up after the war, either. That’s when he became the first black engineer stationed on a repair ship at the Norfolk Navy Yard in Virginia.

“They didn’t know what to do with me,” Mr. Holton says, recounting the story as he held his wife’s hand in the cold breeze in the crowd. “I should have been billeted with the other engineers, but they said ‘We think you’d be more comfortable housed with the cooks and stewards.’ And so that’s where I was billeted.”

Targeted
Within days, another sailor started scribbling graffiti around the ship.

“I worked in the machine shop, and in black crayon he wrote ‘The Black Cat Works Here.’

"At the dining room where I ate, he scribbled ‘The Black Cat Eats Here.' ”

It took the officers a while to find the culprit. In the meantime, Engineer Holton was taken off the ship and sent to advanced diesel engineering school.

“While I was gone, they found out who did it and he was transferred. From there on in, I never had another bad time,” he says.

Confidence
That helped build his confidence that he’d see this day when America would swear in the first African-American president. What happened after the war helped, too. That’s when he was working on a trash truck and another veteran said to him, “You can do better than this.”

So with the help of the GI bill, Holton went to Howard University, graduated, and went on to work for the federal government for 35 years and then another 17 years for Howard University.

Martin Luther King Jr.
In 1963, Holton sat in a tree overlooking the reflecting pool when Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream Speech.”

On the 10th anniversary, he brought his granddaughter to the National Mall.

"I wanted her to know who he was," he says. "I saw this change coming. I always knew it was coming.”

His wife, Judy, who is white and was raised in Baltimore on the other side of the racial divide, was far from sure she’d see this day.

“I remember segregation,” she says. “We had two swimming pools right next to each other. Even the Chesapeake Bay had segregated beaches, which even when I was a child I didn’t think made sense.”

'Just in time'
But today, as the two of them braved the cold for the swearing in, she had tears in her eyes.

“It was just an amazing thing to hear Obama actually say it,” she says.

And then her husband added: “I always knew it would happen, and it did. Just in time….”