Jubilant John Paul Jones Arena Crowd Stands and Cheers Obama's Inauguration

January 20, 2009

January 20, 2009 — Call it the Capitol Mall South, minus the cold and the traffic hassles.

Approximately 3,000 people cheered, laughed, prayed — and perhaps even wiped away a tear — in the John Paul Jones Arena Tuesday as they witnessed the historic inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States of America.

The crowd — at first dominated by local residents, but joined by greater numbers of University students after classes were officially suspended at 11 a.m. — filled more than half of the arena's lower level. Their cheers and shouts at the images on the massive video boards merged with those of the Washington throng piped over the sound system.

Will Ahrens, a sophomore at Monticello High School who helped campaign for Obama, was the first in line, arriving at 8:30.

Why so early? "Because my mom had to go to work," he admitted, sheepishly.

Farther back in the line — which stretched from the arena's main entrance to Whitehead Road by the time the doors swung open at 10:30 — were about 60 elementary school-aged students from the Charlottesville Day School, accompanied by their lunch-toting teachers.

"It was a last-minute trip," said kindergarten teacher Mira Cole. "A couple of parents who work at U.Va. asked 'What are you guys doing? Wouldn't it be cool if you could go over there?'"

The students had participated in a mock election in November, and had been learning about the new president. They even read a children's book about Obama before loading the bus for the trip to the arena.

"Oh my gosh, they're so excited," Cole said. "They've been singing and dancing."

In one corner of the lobby, Madison House, the student-run community volunteer center, set up several displays highlighting its activities.

Organizers had originally planned a student recruitment fair for Newcomb Hall, communications director Ben Eppard said. When classes were suspended, they realized that Newcomb would be "an academic ghost town," he said, and they arranged the shift in venue.

In the days leading up to the inauguration, much of the media coverage focused on an older generation of African-Americans who had lived through the Civil Rights Movement. They almost invariably expressed surprised delight that they had lived to see a black man elected president.

But what about the next generation?

Fourth-year students Rachyl Smith, April Moore and Tukie Falade — all African-Americans — sat together just in front of one of the arena's luxury suites, with a clear view of history.

"Being students at U.Va. I think opportunities will present themselves," said Falade, a foreign affairs and Spanish major from Washington, D.C.

She had thought it was inevitable that an African American would be elected president. "But maybe not in my lifetime," she said.

"I think it's definitely a great thing," said Smith, a history major from Orlando, Fla. "People should be hopeful. But people can't accept it as if it is going to change all aspects of their lives."

"It's a step forward," agreed Moore, a Hampton resident majoring in sociology.

Any doubt that this was a Democratic crowd was dispelled when the official ceremonies began. The arrival of soon-to-be-former President Bush received a smattering of tepid handclaps, while Obama's official entrance sparked the first of many standing ovations. Controversial evangelist Rick Warren's invocation drew modest applause, soon eclipsed by the enthusiastic greeting for the "Queen of Soul," Aretha Franklin. (Which itself was followed by a few giggles at her choice of hat with its oversized gray bow studded with rhinestones.)

There was some hesitancy in the arena when the crowd in D.C. was asked to stand for the swearing-in of Joseph Biden as vice president, but a few bold volunteers led everyone to their feet. Obama's oath prompted the event's longest and loudest celebration, as several in the crowd took pictures and at least one group waved an American flag.

The applause lines in Obama's address drew similar reactions in both the JPJ and in D.C., but the Charlottesville crowd seemed a bit more excited about Obama's call to invest in research and education.

Most in the crowd stuck it out through the Rev. Joseph Lowry's rather lengthy benediction, and joined the D.C. crowd in shouting "Amen! Amen! Amen!" at his prompting.

They stood and sang the national anthem, and then it was over. And though Obama had been candid in warning of the many trials that lay ahead, 3,000 proud Americans exited the arena into the cold sunlight with smiles on their faces.

While thousands responded to the jumbotron in JPJ, a Twitter feed at the Scholars Lab in Alderman Library carried the thoughts of thousands more from all parts of the world.

Inauguration 2.0

Twitter, the social networking tool that lets users share messages of no more than 140 characters, was aswarm with comments, news updates and questions, with new "tweets" coming in at the rate of eight to 10 per second. They appeared on a large screen in the lab, and on the laptop of anyone who cared to watch.

"MSNBC reporting that some people may not get in for the parade," wrote Bing Futch at 3:52:07. "Anyone having that problem?"

"Ted Kennedy collapsed at Obama's inaugural luncheon," wrote "themacpenguin" at 3:52:09 p.m.

And this from "The Disney Blog" at 4:05:  "Cannot tell you how proud it makes me feel to be a part of a nation where a newly elected black president can walk to his new house."

Joe Gilbert, director of the Scholars Lab, said it's impossible to keep up with the feed. "You can't stop and read every one," he said.

Because National Public Radio had asked listeners to tag their messages with "inaug09," it was easy to set up the feed. "These are people who are engaged with technology and engaged with Web 2.0 and they want to participate," Gilbert said.

When messages come from GPS-enabled phones, a world map displays where they originated. Accompanying the tweets were photos uploaded from Flickr, a popular Web photo site.

The Twitter and Flickr feeds will remain in place until midday Wednesday.

— By Dan Heuchert