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Black America Goes to Washington

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On January 20, Olivia Lee will be nearly eight months pregnant. With twins. But that's not stopping the Philadelphia resident from planning to venture out to the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., and brave freezing temperatures to witness the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama.

"I think it's worth it," says Lee, 27, who will be making the trip with her husband and their 1-year-old son. "This event is historic, and I'd like my son to say he was there when it happened. Even though he's still so small, I'm sure he'll understand later on."

Lee and her family are a tiny fraction of the unprecedented 4 million people expected to journey to Washington for Inauguration Day, according to some reports, many of them African-Americans who are determined to see for themselves the swearing-in of the country's first Black President. With people headed to D.C. on church bus trips, girlfriend getaways and family vacations, the 2009 presidential inauguration is practically shaping up to be the next Great Black Migration. "One of my coworkers has a friend in Tennessee who's traveling with her relatives," says Lee. "My girlfriend from Atlanta's coming up, too. We all just want to be there and watch history."

"It's an exciting time here in D.C.," says Victoria Isley, senior vice-president of marketing communications at Destination D.C., the city's official tourism office. "We're working to make sure as many people as possible can be here on January 20." Because of the high demand, most hotels in the District and its surrounding areas are booked solid-and prices for some have skyrocketed to figures as high as $1,000 a night-but Isley still encourages out-of-town guests to call the tourism office for information on where they may be able to check in.

Another challenge for visitors will be actually seeing the inauguration ceremony. Only 240,000 tickets will be available to the public, distributed by senators and representatives at their discretion, so most people probably won't be close enough to the action to watch Obama take the oath of office right before their eyes. "We'll just be standing out there," says Lee, who doesn't have tickets but plans to ride public transportation from a relative's house to the 11:30 a.m. ceremony early that morning. City officials, however, are expecting people to camp out overnight in the cold the day before. To accommodate the influx of guests, officials are reportedly in talks to open up more space along the National Mall and install extra JumboTrons in the area.

"There's so much hype around this inauguration that people are talking about renting out rooms in their houses, or leaving town to rent their apartments to people coming to the city," says Chris Knudson, senior vice-president of marketing and communications for the Washington, D.C., Chamber of Commerce. "Especially with the way the economy is right now, the business community is looking to it as an opportunity to stimulate some business."

Isley of Destination D.C. cites the numerous balls and galas occurring on the nights before and after the inauguration as other activities visitors can participate in, and says more events will be announced in the coming weeks. But the week's most in-demand affair will take place on the Capitol steps, as President-elect Obama swears to faithfully execute the office of President of the United States. "This is an opportunity for my son to see and understand that the word ‘no' shouldn't be in his vocabulary as far as achievement," says Lee on the significance this inauguration holds for her. "I know that's a valuable lesson that he'll be able to take back from this."

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