Area students have tickets to history

Pre-Collegiate high school students from left, Lyndria White, Misty Smith, Clarece Polke, Malachi Gordon, and Whitlee Jones from Eastside and Gainesville High Schools pose together at the library of Eastside High School on Tuesday, January 12, 2009. The pre-collegiate students have raised funds to attend the DC inauguration for President-Elect Barack Obama.

Aaron Daye/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Tuesday, January 13, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 12, 2009 at 10:04 p.m.

Eastside High sophomore Misty Smith's great-grandmother lived to see a moment in history she thought might never come - the first black U.S. president.

A few days after the election of Barack Obama, Smith's great-grandmother passed away at age 78.

"She was real thankful to be able to live to see a black president elected to office," Smith, 15, said.

Now Smith will have a chance to witness history firsthand - as one of 12 Alachua County high school students traveling to Washington, D.C., to attend Obama's inauguration.

"It's just good to see there's a chance for anyone to achieve anything they want to in this life," Smith said. "There's a chance for anyone to achieve their goals if they put their mind to it."

The story of the inauguration trip starts with Shirley Feagin, the director of Eastside High's pre-collegiate organization, a program designed to help minority high school students prepare for college.

Feagin said an Eastside High graduate named C.J. Walker, a former member of the pre-collegiate program, got on the staff of U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson several years ago.

Through Walker and Nelson's office, Feagin had been able to secure her students tickets to President Bush's 2001 and 2005 inaugurations.

Preparing early, she requested tickets to this inauguration in early January 2008.

"We were going anyway, but after Obama won, not only are they excited, I'm excited," Feagin, 62, said.

"You have to realize, I'm old enough that I had to sit on the back of the bus," said Feagin, who is black. "I had to drink out of the colored drinking fountain. I had to have my first child in a segregated hospital. I don't know what I'm going to do when he's sworn in."

Feagin said she took part in the civil rights movement and years later found out she had a record with the FBI because of two arrests during sit-ins at segregated Jacksonville restaurants in the 1960s.

She said she could have the record expunged, but won't because she considers it a "badge of honor."

While Eastside High students will make up the majority of the group headed to Washington, D.C., one student each from Newberry High, Gainesville High, Buchholz High and Santa Fe High also will go.

Gainesville High senior Clarece Polke, 17, said she was already committed to the trip when she realized during Hillary Clinton and Obama's heated primary contest that she might witness the country's first female or first black president take office.

"When he won - it just added onto it," she said.

Eastside High freshman Malachi D. Gordon, 15, said he believed the election of Obama was not just an accomplishment for Obama.

"It shows America is growing and putting differences aside," he said.

The trip will last from Wednesday through Jan. 25 and includes visits to the Capitol, the Pentagon, a slew of museums, universities and the historic monuments in Washington D.C.

Feagin said no school district money, "not one penny," goes toward the trip - this year or in the past. Private donations from businesses, individuals, church groups and Eastside's faculty and staff will pay the way, she said.

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