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Can't get to D.C. for Inauguration Day? Consider these historic alternatives

Bill McGee,  Jan 07, 2009

Shortly after Election Day, I had a terrific idea: I would take my son out of school and travel to Washington to witness the historic inauguration of Barack Obama as the first African-American president of the United States. Alas, it stopped being a terrific idea around the same time that 4 million other Americans came up with the same one.

There are likely millions more who would like to be in D.C. on January 20th, but they're prevented by a combination of factors—the expense of traveling, the mid-week date, the distance to the nation's capital, the chance of bitter January weather and those crowds that are estimated to swell to record proportions. I considered airways, railways and highways, and soon realized that all modes were either too clogged, too expensive, or both.

That's the bad news. The good news is there are myriad ways to witness history, and they all don't require you to stand thirty-deep on Pennsylvania Avenue. Depending on where you'll be two weeks from now, one of these choices might work for you.

Civil rights sites

There are dozens of historic locations around the country that will be commemorating—both formally and informally—President-Elect Obama's oath-taking. And due to an interesting fluke in the calendar this year, Barack Obama's inauguration on Tuesday the 20th will follow the three-day Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. Because of this, many local schools, houses of worship, museums and other facilities are planning programs that extend across all four days.

Two of the most culturally significant sites are well worth considering as alternatives on Inauguration Day. One is the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail, scene of the Voting Rights March in 1965 that evolved into a pivotal moment in American history. The trail is showcased at the Lowndes Interpretive Center in Hayneville, Ala., a museum administered by the National Park Service (NPS). On January 20th, the Center will present an extensive program of events as part of its first educational program on presidential inaugurations. Students and teachers from nearby counties will participate in the activities, which include educational talks, a civic leaders forum and a video viewing of the 2009 inauguration.

The other key site is the National Civil Rights Museum, located at what was formerly the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, the scene of Dr. King's assassination. Museum exhibits are usually closed on Tuesdays, but from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., the museum will host a big-screen television airing of the inaugural festivities in Washington. Events coordinator Connie Dyson indicates the event was hatched after input from prospective visitors who could not travel to Washington: "That's definitely the feedback we've been hearing from people who are interested in attending."

There are several other NPS sites that are likely to draw visitors on Inauguration Day, and though all won't have special programs, "they are still great places to visit to mark the historic occasion," says NPS spokeswoman Kathy Kupper. To obtain detailed information on historic locations across the USA, visit the National Park Service's " Our Shared History" African American. Heritage site. The NPS also provides additional information at its " Celebrate African American Heritage in America's National Parks."

Here are some other noteworthy events taking place around the country:

•Staten Island Children's Museum, Staten Island, N.Y. On the Saturday and Sunday before the inauguration, families can visit this facility as it honors "This Day in History" and allows kids to document the historic event by writing their own headlines. The program is open to the public on the 17th and 18th at 1 p.m., 2 p.m., and 3 p.m. Travel options always include the ferry from lower Manhattan.

•The Museum of African American History, Boston. The Boston African American National Historic Site and the City of Boston are presenting the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra's Intensive Community Program Family Concert on Martin Luther King Day, Jan. 19th, from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. at Fanueil Hall; admission is free.

•The Lark Theater in Larkspur, Calif. You can watch the inauguration ceremonies on the big screen for $10, which includes breakfast pastry and beverages. Doors open at 8:30 a.m. but advanced tickets are recommended since seating is limited.

Obama tourism takes root

For those who can't be with Barack Obama in Washington on the 20th, there's still the option of retracing his footsteps in some of the places he has called home throughout his life. Here are several suggestions:

• The Illinois Bureau of Tourism's official site reflects that state's pride in sending its first Chief Executive to Washington since Abraham Lincoln. For those planning a three-day getaway, the site offers the " President-Elect Obama Trail," which includes his Hyde Park neighborhood and Grant Park, scene of his Election Night acceptance speech. Chicago tourism officials are promoting the city's favorite son as well.

• Those with the time and finances could take an 11-day " Presidential Heritage Safari" to Kenya, the home country of Obama's father. The tour is being offered by New York City-based 2AFRIKA; packages start at $2,999, with flights departing daily from the U.S.

• In addition, tourism officials from Indonesia apparently are eager to market Obama's ties to the country where he spent part of his youth. A marketing executive for the Department of Culture and Tourism told an interviewer his office is working with U.S. tour operators to develop "Obama Heritage" packages.

• Finally, here's a suggestion that will be awfully tempting as temperatures continue to plummet around the country. You can celebrate the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States in the place of his birth: Honolulu. In fact, the 50th state's official tourism site has posted the " Barack Obama's Hawaii" page, complete with historical landmarks and the new commander-in-chief's favorite local haunts.

Location isn't everything

As much as we all love to travel, an historic occasion such as this one will be experienced by millions of Americans—indeed, millions around the world—wherever they happen to be. The occasion will be marked from Detroit to St. Louis and from Harlem to New Orleans; from the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Kan., to the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site in Little Rock; from Harpers Ferry, W.Va., to Tuskegee, Ala. Even Hollywood will bow before history: Next year's Academy Award nominations originally were scheduled to be announced on Jan. 20th, but the Oscar candidates will now be revealed on Thursday the 22nd.

As for me, I'll be joining a friend to watch the swearing-in ceremonies on a big screen at New York City's Trinity Church, where George Washington attended services shortly after his inauguration as the first president of the United States. I thought it would be a fitting way to celebrate another historic milestone. I'd provide further details, but I wouldn't want to lose my seat.

Can't get to D.C. for Inauguration Day? Consider these historic alternatives
Photograph by Alex Brandon, AP Photo

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