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WASHINGTON, D.C.—They have come from near and far, in cars, buses and planes. They doubled up in the homes of their friends and kin. Some pooled their money together to share hotels. Others were lucky enough to nab a ticket to one of the inaugural events, but most did not and it did not matter. They just wanted to be here.

Millions have traveled to D.C. this week for the festivities surrounding President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration, and locals say they haven’t felt this kind of electricity for a long time. John Henry Smith and his family traveled all the way from California, but Smith’s journey to this point really stretches decades.

“He really shouldn’t even be here,” says his wife, Gail, referring to her husband surviving three tours of duty in the Vietnam War. But Smith brushes the comment off, saying he was destined to see this historic moment.

“We tell our children that they can do anything, but there was always still a wall,” says Smith. “Hopefully Barack winning will inspire young people to stay in school.”

Witnessing so many friends die in the war and surviving injuries from flying shrapnel during his tours, Smith, who walks with a cane, thought he’d seen it all. That is until Obama, an African-American, won the presidency back in November. Right then, he told his wife to make reservations for Washington, D.C. Gail said they were not able to get tickets to any events, but it wasn’t because of not trying. They called their congressman and got the “Dear John” letter. “But it is just great to be here,” says Gail, who along with her husband, live outside of Sacramento.

Smith, who was also with his two granddaughters and other relatives, could only get to the gate near the Lincoln Memorial, where an estimated 2 million people came for concerts and to hear Obama, who gave a welcoming speech. As Smith and his family walked to their hotel, they saw Obama’s motorcade zoom by. The family erupted in cheers. In their eyes, they were able to see him after all.

Like Smith, Joanne Williams from West Palm Beach, Florida, immediately decided to come to D.C. after realizing a Black man would be the forty-fourth president. “She made me miss his speech because she called me and said ‘make my reservations,” recalls her son Sherman White, 37. Braving the icy Washington, D.C., weather hasn’t been an easy task, but she says it’s a small price to pay.

“I’ve never felt such cold,” she says. “But it’s okay. I never thought I would see this day,” shares Williams, who traveled 16 hours in a car to get to D.C. Williams and her large group of family and friends were able to attend the opening ceremony.

Althea Mitchell, 52, from Beamont, Texas, came with her husband, brother, sister and brother-in-law. They drove up in an RV, and parked in Maryland. The trip was 21 hours total, with a rest stop in Atlanta. “We’ve been following Obama during the whole campaign. During the debates we had debate parties, and we watched the Democratic National Convention together as a family. We felt so strongly connected to his message of hope for America—and not just us, but for all of America.

“After he won the election, we immediately started looking for a way to be here, whether we had tickets or not. We just wanted to be part of history. We were too young to participate in the Civil Rights Movement or anything that became historic, but we know that this is a historical moment in time. We want to be able to pass this moment on to our grandchildren and children.”

Mitchell’s sister Hazel Patterson, 60, also from Beaumont, echoed her sibling’s sentiments. “This is a time of change. It’s a change I never thought I would see in my lifetime. Having an African-American president is the realization of a dream—not just my dream, but the dream of a people. I wanted to be here in person to be a part of it. Whether I get up close or not, I will always know where I was the day Barack Obama was inaugurated.”