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Despite Crowds, 105-Year-Old Heads To Capitol

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Despite Crowds, 105-Year-Old Heads To Capitol

Despite Crowds, 105-Year-Old Heads To Capitol

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/99563301/99570693" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is Morning Edition from NPR News with Steve Inskeep. I'm Renee Montagne. The swearing in of the first African-American president is particularly moving for many black Americans who've lived through segregation and the Civil Rights movement. NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports on one woman who may be the oldest African-American to travel to Washington for the inauguration.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: It started the day after the election. Ella Mae Johnson called people she thought could help her get to Washington. It wasn't going to be easy. For one thing, Ella Mae Johnson is 105 years old. She's seen more than a century of African-American history, and she wanted to see with her own eyes Barack Obama sworn in as president.

Ms. ELLA MAE JOHNSON: I have experienced some of the terrible things that happened to groups, to us and to others. There are people who believe because you were different you were less than them.

SHAPIRO: She's also been an actor in that century of black history. Johnson was a student at Fisk University in Nashville in 1924 when civil rights activists and writer W. E. B. Du Bois came to speak. Du Bois criticized the white man who ran that black college for being paternalistic. Students responded by going out on strike.

Ms. JOHNSON: I stayed off campus. I didn't go to classes for one semester. And I went back and graduated one semester later than I should.

SHAPIRO: The students' strike forced the Fisk president to step aside. In 1929, Johnson got her graduate degree in social work from Western Reserve University in Cleveland. But she wasn't allowed to live on campus because of the color of her skin. She stayed in Cleveland, and today she lives at Judson Park, an upscale assisted-living facility. Her social worker and other staff there set about to get her to the inauguration. Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown quickly came up with tickets. But last week, they realized it was going to be a lot tougher than they'd expected. Long lines and not just a few hours, but six, seven or even more outside in freezing temperatures. Iris Williams is a nurse at Judson Park. She explains what happened when she and others staffers tried to get Johnson to reconsider.

Ms. IRIS WILLIAMS (Nurse, Judson Park): Her comment was, and? And? And she just didn't blink an eye. And her final comment was, well, now we know the problems.

SHAPIRO: So this morning, Ella Mae Johnson, 105, got up hours before dawn. She put on her pearls and the elegant outfit that she's brought. The rented Lincoln Town car will take her as close to the Capitol as it can. The nurse will push her in a wheelchair. Johnson says she wants to be there for the new president.

Ms. JOHNSON: My hope for him is my hope for the country. If he fails, the country fails. He knows and he says, not me, but you. Not us, but all of us.

SHAPIRO: Joseph Shapiro, NPR News Washington.

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