Page last updated at 11:55 GMT, Friday, 16 January 2009

Diary: Railroad to the White House

Barack Obama's journey to the White House is nearly over.

map of the train route

Three days before being sworn in on 20 January, the US president-elect will make a symbolic train journey from Philadelphia, south to Washington DC, a ceremonial arrival that deliberately echoes that of his presidential hero Abraham Lincoln.

Philippa Thomas traces the route to discover the expectations and problems Mr Obama will face after taking office.


On Saturday, the inaugural train will pull into Union Station, Washington. It's a spectacular location. It was the largest train station in the world when it was built in 1907, and walking through that massive concourse still takes my breath away today.

Whatever he achieves in office, Barack Obama's arrival here to be sworn in as president makes history. The point of his journey is to pay homage to history, too, with the focus on two American leaders who helped to end slavery and segregation.

Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln was elected the 16th president of the US in 1860

I've been reminded several times on this trip that much of official Washington - the White House itself - was built with slave labour. The Founding Fathers, men like Washington and Jefferson, saw no shame in keeping slaves.

When president-elect Abraham Lincoln made his inaugural train journey to Washington in 1861, he had to be smuggled through the city of Baltimore at dead of night, such was the public anger at his stand on preserving the union and ending the practice of slavery.

What a contrast it is going to be, when the first African-American president stops in Baltimore on Saturday to address a crowd expected to number tens of thousands.

As for the other great leader, it is Martin Luther King Day on Monday, a public holiday traditionally seen as a day of service. Thousands of community projects have been planned across America - and you can expect to see the new First Family doing their bit for the country, and the cameras.

Here in Washington, the link to Martin Luther King Jr is especially meaningful. It was here that he made his famous "I have a dream" speech in 1963. After he was assassinated, a large part of the city went up in flames. In his wake, civil rights leaders redoubled their efforts to end segregation.

This week I spoke to one of those leaders, the Reverend Walter Fauntroy.


Rev Walter Fauntroy calls for an international celebration

Rev Fauntroy marched with Martin Luther King Jr. He was the first Congressional representative for DC. He is retiring on Sunday after 50 years as pastor at the city's New Bethel Baptist church. He told me he has been proud to organise - at the suggestion of Nelson Mandela - a special inaugural ball for "Africa and International Friends".

Looking back at the early stages of Mr Obama's battle for the Democratic nomination, I remember some critics questioning whether this young Illinois politician was "black enough". His mother was white, his father from Kenya. He has no personal connection to America's days of slavery and segregation.

But today those critics have gone quiet.

They have been overwhelmed by the recognition from left and right alike of what Barack Obama has achieved to come this far. And by the sheer numbers of Americans coming to Washington this weekend, who want to stand and say they witnessed history.


Baltimore loves Barack Obama - and needs him to make change real.

This gritty port city saw its fortunes rise in the industrial age, and then fall hard as thousands of jobs in steel, autos and textiles disappeared.

Nearly one third of Baltimore's population fled between 1950 and 2000, an exodus that gained momentum in the wake of the 1968 race riots.

Dominic West
The Wire starred British actor Dominic West

Today city leaders want us to believe that Baltimore is Back.

The harbour front is a triumph of regeneration - a gorgeous skyline boasting new hotels, bars, restaurants and a handful of world-class museums. Business leaders proudly point out that Baltimore has the fastest growing information technology sector in the nation.

But in East Baltimore, which bore the brunt of the exodus, you drive past street after street of abandoned row houses.

Doors and windows are crudely blocked up. Roofs are broken open to the rain. There is hardly anyone out on the sidewalk. A fifth of Baltimore's residents live below the poverty line. The homicide rate is dropping - but it is still shocking that 234 people were shot dead last year.

This is the world of the cult TV series The Wire, the creation of Baltimore writer David Simon. It shows us the lives of gangs enmeshed in drugs and crime, and the struggle of city police officers to take back the streets.

When I met community worker Brian Devlin, who helps rehabilitate abandoned homes for the St Ambrose Housing Aid Center, he told me just how firmly that television world is rooted in reality.


Stories from the real streets of The Wire

As Obama prepares for office, he has already warned that the United States is sliding into the worst economic crisis since World War II.

Here in Baltimore, Brian Devlin says around 30% of the economy is directly related to housing - whether restoring rundown city blocks, or dealing with new repossessions in the suburbs.

These are the kind of infrastructure projects that need a lot more cash, and quickly. A stark reminder to the president-elect that there'll be no time for a "honeymoon period", just a lot of hard graft after he takes office on Tuesday.

On Friday we arrive where Obama's inaugural journey ends, and his presidency begins - in the nation's capital, Washington DC.

If you think about American politics, you think of Washington DC. If you're worrying about the state of the US economy, you look to New York, and Wall Street. But hold on, say the people of Philadelphia, what about our city? We're not just sitting in the middle. We have history on our side. This is where the nation began.

This week, I found Philadelphia voters just thrilled that Barack Obama has chosen their city to begin his inaugural journey. And no shortage of volunteers happy to give me a history lesson.

Liberty Bell, Philadelphia
Philadelphia's iconic Liberty Bell cracked during testing

Yes, this is the place where the Declaration of Independence was first read aloud in July 1776, the stirring proclamation made that "all men are created equal".

This is the place where America's revolution was made real. The first Congress was held here. The Constitutional Convention was convened to give shape to the breakaway republic.

Across from the famous Independence Hall, you can still queue up today to pay your respects to the massive "Liberty Bell" - inscribed with the Biblical verse, "proclaim Liberty throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof".

On Saturday, Barack Obama will pay his homage to that history, when he starts his inaugural train journey from Philadelphia's 30th Street station. The "city of brotherly love" is certainly feeling it for the president-elect.

On 4 November, more than 80% of the city's vote went to Mr Obama, pulling the swing state of Pennsylvania firmly into the Democrats' camp.

Today, tourists and locals alike are dealing in bucks not ballots, buying up Obama memorabilia . My favourite, the T shirt depicting Obama, the White House, and the slogan "Under New Management". Or was it the chocolate bar for Change?


"Change" chocolate, Obama mints and other inaugural memorabilia

It's not just about city pride. It's about black pride. Today Philadelphia is 45% African-American. In the days of the Declaration of Independence, it had the largest free African population in the nation.

Half a century later, it was also critical to the success of the Underground Railroad -the network of secret routes and safe houses that spirited runaway slaves from the south to freedom.

It's a great place to bring together the official story of American Independence with the other side of history - to recognise that "all men" were not created equal in the eyes of the nation's founders.

It took a civil war to end slavery, and a president, Abraham Lincoln, whom Mr Obama will be honouring in a train journey that recreates Lincoln's first inaugural route, in a ceremony where he'll lay his hand on Lincoln's Bible, and in a speech with the theme of "renewing America's promise".

Thursday sees us move onto Baltimore, a city that's struggled with industrial decay, poverty and crime, the world of the hit TV series The Wire - another stop on Barack Obama's inaugural journey, where voters are looking for change.

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