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Inauguration of Vice President Kamala Harris & Amanda Gorman, the youngest Inaugural Poet

“As Long As We Are Brave Enough to Be It” 2021 Inauguration Day and Those Past

The HistoryMakers

Wednesday, January 20, 2021, Inauguration Day, featured our 46th President, Joseph R. Biden, the first African American Vice President Kamala Harris, and the first inaugural National Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, among others. It was indeed an historic day that allowed millions of African Americans to breathe a sigh of relief. Joyful is how many felt. Today, we want to take a historic look at African American involvement in U.S. presidential inaugural activities.

African American troops lined up at President Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inauguration (bottom right side), Washington D.C., March 4, 1865

It was 156 years ago in 1865 at the invitation of President Abraham Lincoln that the first African Americans attended Inauguration Day events. This included African American soldiers marching in the parade. Here, “pride was evident in the faces of Black citizens, newspapers wrote… one Black man wrote later in the African American newspaper the Liberator… ‘If I were to live to the age of Methuselah, I could not expect ever to witness such a spectacle again.’ …[But] ‘It seemed as if there was a reaction from the anti-slavery sentiments of the inaugural, and every Negro boy got an extra push on account of his color,’ the New York Tribune reported. ‘Soldiers knocked Negro women roughly about and called them very uncomplimentary names.’ …Lincoln was unsure how his speech would be received. Black abolition leader Frederick Douglass was invited to that night’s White House reception… ‘Mr. Lincoln,’ Douglass responded after a hesitation, ‘that was a sacred effort.’[1]

Subsequently, U.S. presidential inaugurations were largely segregated, as Robert Sengstacke (1943 – 2017), former president of the Chicago Defender newspaper, described. His father, John H. Sengstacke, actually played a role in helping to integrate the inauguration of President Harry S. Truman’s following his 1948 re-election: “Before Truman, blacks used to have to sit behind a curtain at the inauguration… the inaugural ball was separated… by an actual curtain. And one of the deals with Truman was that, that curtain would come down… my father just happened to be in Washington [D.C.] the day that Dawson [Congressman William L. Dawson of Illinois] got enough calls from around the country–people saying that they had not got their invitation to the inauguration because there were certain blacks… throughout the country, who knew they were supposed to be invited. And Truman had issued the order to the inaugural committee, but it wasn’t followed up on… the whites in the inaugural committee had… sabotaged it. And so, my father… came by Dawson’s office, and learned about this. And because you still had to buy a ticket… my father wrote a check for all these black people… And this is how blacks were first seated in… an integrated atmosphere.”[2] Also, film producer Russell Williams, II remembered attending President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s second inauguration in 1957: “Standing at 7th [Street] and Pennsylvania Avenue… I saw about a thousand soldiers, sailors, Marines [U.S. Marine Corps] and [U.S.] Air Force people. There were tanks, there were rockets… it was just a big crowd of people. As far as I… could tell there were as many black people down there as there were whites. And we were all just looking at this parade… a lot of people had… little American flags on sticks.”[3]

Left to right- President Harry S. Truman, John H. Sengstacke, and Mayor Richard J. Daley, Bud Billiken Parade, Chicago, Illinois, 1956

Experience with presidential cabinet appointments has also been limited. To date, there have only been twenty two cabinet positions held by African Americans, with Robert C. Weaver being the first appointee in 1966 as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Lyndon B. Johnson. Alexis Herman, former U.S. Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton explained what happened when she worked for President Jimmy Carter with a change of administrations: “There’s no such thing as transition when you elect a new president. You’re on the job until noon January the 20th, the new president is sworn in… and you ushered out the door… You don’t get to work with the new team coming in the door… even though you have between November and January to work ‘on a transition,’ what’s typically going on… the new team’s trying to figure out… where the bathrooms are, and who’s who… It’s not about necessarily the substantive work or what you’re involved in on a day to day basis… And then you really start the process of trying to figure out… what am I going to do next? …people scatter, and everyone finds himself really in the same situation. And… there were not, certainly at that time, a lot of African-Americans who had been in leadership roles… Pat Harris was a member of our cabinet at that time. But we really didn’t have a lot of appointees who had had the experience of being in government before… and so we were turning to one another not with a lot of answers. And there were stories in the paper about… Carter appointees, black and white, filling the ranks of the unemployed, and that was true.”[4] Rear admiral Stephen Rochon, the first African American director of the Executive Residence and usher at the White House, further explained the logistics for staff that remains at the White House during transitions: “Once you know who the president-elect is, you’ve already done a lot of legwork upfront by creating a list of questions to ask, all the way down to what type of shampoo do you like and what’s the shaving cream. What allergies… does your family have? The colors and… and the foods that you like… to help us get ready for a new first family… it takes a good four and a half hours. That’s all we have… from the time the brand new president comes back after the inauguration… It’s like organized chaos… it’s exciting, and people are charged about their jobs… they wanna impress the new first family they’re gonna be working for, for the next four to eight years.”[5]

Left to right- The Honorable Robert C. Weaver, The Honorable Patricia “Pat” Harris, The Honorable Alexis Herman, and Rear Admiral Stephen Rochon

Janis F. Kearney, President Bill Clinton’s personal diarist, detailed the excitement of being a part of the incoming administration: “Inaugural day was memorable to me because, I got to go to the White House that day. That was the day that we transferred from the Committee Office to the White House. That was… one of those days you pinch yourself to see if you’re still human. That you’re still walking on the ground. Because to go into that gate and walk into the White House and know that you’re one of these people now, you’re a part of this, was a once in a million… lifetimes for me.”[6] Betty Currie, President Clinton’s personal secretary, described the closing of his administration: “We were packing up… we had to do certain things with our papers… leave them there at the White House, categorize them, put them in boxes and file them… it was sad… we were in the White House the last day, and he [Clinton] had to go to meet [George W.] Bush, and he left the Oval Office and walked down, and we just sat there and… boo-hoo’d. And he said, ‘It’s a good time. These things happen.’[7]

White House Entrance Hall

This personal meeting of the outgoing and incoming president is a longstanding tradition: “In 1837, Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren rode together in a carriage to the Capitol for the inauguration, the first time that a departing president joined his successor.”[8] Jim Bendat, an inauguration historian, noted in regards to this year’s transition: “We have come to expect that now, but we are not having it this year, sadly… It is an important symbolic moment to show that the old and the new can get along, even if they are in a different party.”[9]

President Andrew Jackson
President Martin Van Buren

We know not what the future may hold for presidential inaugurations and administrations, and we are all hoping that 2021 is better than 2020. But we do know from what Amanda Gorman proclaimed in her inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb,” that even a skinny black girl’s dream of being president of the United States is possible:

Capitol Hill on Inauguration Day with flags positioned where crowds typically gather

And yet the dawn is ours

before we knew it.

Somehow we do it.

Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed

a nation that isn’t broken,

but simply unfinished.

We the successors of a country and a time

where a skinny Black girl

descended from slaves and raised by a single mother

can dream of becoming president

only to find herself reciting for one.[10]

[1] Ronald G. Shafer. “Healing a bitterly divided nation: The link between Lincoln in 1865 and Biden in 2021,” Washington Post, January 20, 2021, accessed January 22, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2021/01/20/lincoln-inauguration-biden-unity/

[2] Robert Sengstacke (The HistoryMakers A2003.305), interviewed by Larry Crowe, December 19, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 3, Robert Sengstacke talks about his father and William L. Dawson helping African Americans attend President Harry S. Truman’s inaugural ball.

[3] Russell Williams, II (The HistoryMakers A2007.273), interviewed by Cheryl Butler, September 26, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 9, Russell Williams, II describes his earliest childhood memory.

[4] The Honorable Alexis Herman (The HistoryMakers A2003.087), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, June 30, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 7, story 7, Alexis Herman talks about the abrupt changes after President Jimmy Carter lost reelection.

[5] Radm. Stephen Rochon (The HistoryMakers A2013.184), interviewed by Larry Crowe, August 8, 2013, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 7, story 5, Stephen Rochon describes how the White House transitions between presidents, pt. 2.

[6] Janis F. Kearney (The HistoryMakers A2003.262), interviewed by Ray Parr Moore, November 7, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 5, Janis Kearney shares her personal experience of Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration.

[7] Betty Currie (The HistoryMakers A2004.066), interviewed by Larry Crowe, June 8, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 8, Betty Currie describes the last days of President Clinton’s term.

[8] Christine Hauser. “Who Was the First New President to …?” The New York Times, January 18, 2021, accessed January 19, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/18/us/politics/presidential-inauguration-history-facts.html

[9] Ibid.

[10] Amanda Gorman, “The Hill We Climb,” Washington D.C., January 20, 2021.

HistoryMaker & Baseball Legend Hank Aaron (1934 – 2021)

Hank Aaron, 1957

When asked in his 2016 HistoryMakers interview how he would like to be remembered, Aaron stated: “Regardless of what I tackled, what I went into, I did it with the intent of doing the very best that I could do. It was not a matter of trying to go into something… to make money… I’d just like people to remember… he wasn’t greedy. He didn’t try to hog everything, he did things for others.”[1]

Today we mourn the loss of Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron, born on February 5, 1934 in Mobile, Alabama. Beginning his historic baseball career with the semi-professional Negro league team the Mobile Black Bears in 1951, Aaron joined the major leagues three years later with the Milwaukee Braves, who he helped lead to a World Series title in 1957. Breaking Babe Ruth‘s homerun record in 1974, Aaron still holds records for RBIs (2,297), total bases (6,856) and extra-base hits (1,477), and he ranks among MLB’s best in hits (3,771, third all time), games played (3,298, third) and runs scored (2,174, fourth).[2]

Hank Aaron, 2007

[1] Hank Aaron (The HistoryMakers A2016.064), interviewed by Larry Crowe, October 1, 2016, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 6, story 8, Hank Aaron describes how he would like to be remembered.

[2] “Longtime MLB home run king Hank Aaron dies at 86,” ESPN, January 22, 2021, accessed January 22, 2021. https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/30759123/long-home-run-king-hank-aaron-dies-86

The Honorable Doris Ward

My Favorite Saying

What Happens To You Is Not Near As Important As How You Handle What Happens To You.

The Honorable Doris Ward

President, San Francisco County Board of Supervisors

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