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Bus Connections

Wendy Lee is marking the inauguration of the first black president by taking Philadelphians to D.C.


From the January 14, 2009 Philadelphia Weekly.

Going door to door to get out the vote in Germantown before the presidential election, Wendy Lee sensed the excitement surrounding Barack Obama's candidacy. On Election Day, she witnessed the lines of people - many who were her longtime neighbors and friends, waiting to cast their vote for a person who looked like them.

As soon as Obama's victory was announced, Lee, a divisional committee person representing the Morton Homes area and the president of the United Morton Homes Tenant Council, was almost expected to organize a trip to the inauguration.

"I really didn't want to," admits Lee, 48, who works three jobs and is a single mother with two daughters. "I had a lot of neighbors pushing me but I didn't have the time to do it."

Then her mother called.

"My grandparents and their parents worked on plantations, struggling all their lives to get us to this point," Dolores Thomas, 68, remembers telling her daughter. "Your grandmother went through a lot here in Philadelphia. If she was still alive, she'd be screaming, 'We made it! We made it!'"

"She demanded I organize a bus," Lee says.

"Well, I did," Thomas states emphatically. "This is something special. A lot of people my age didn't think they'd live to see this."

Within one week of the election, Lee arranged a bus for 52 people and started soliciting people.

Her mother was the first to sign up.


Authorities in the District of Columbia estimate that the crowd on Tuesday will be more than 1 million people, and possibly as many as 5 million.

The vast majority won't have tickets to the official ceremony in front of the Capitol building. Most will watch the swearing-in on JumboTrons in the Mall, several blocks away from the action. It will be crowded, so they may not even be able to see the screens. And being January, it may be quite cold.

That doesn't seem to matter.

"I will put on my biggest coat and longjohns just to be a part of it," says Lee's cousin Deneen Skipworth. "I'll probably cry."

In Lee's modest living room - surrounded by framed portraits of daughters, nephews, aunts, cousins, grandparents and other relatives - Lee, Skipworth and their distant cousin Kelley Lindsay radiate with pride.

"I never thought a black man or woman would be elected president," Skipworth says.

"He crosses races, nationalities," Lindsay chimes in. "He'll bring in the right people, whoever they are, and he'll get things done."

"Even if we can't get tickets, we'll be a part of history," Lee adds.

Many of the people Lee enlisted for the trip are friends or relatives, including her 5-year old grandson.

"I'm going to be surrounded by family," Lee continues. "I'm going to share this day with people I love."


From Monday through Friday, Lee works as a full-time administrative assistant for NHS Human Services in Mt. Airy. On Monday evenings, she mans the front desk at the Dance Institute of Philadelphia in Germantown. On Thursday and Friday evenings, and from 9 to 5 on Saturdays and Sundays, Lee serves as a "community backer" for Vision Quest, counseling teenage girls under house arrest throughout the city.

"That's what us single mommas do," Lee boasts. "I have no time to date."

She jokes that all her money goes to Penn State University, where her younger daughter is a sophomore.

In addition to the near=constant employment, Lee arranges line dances, organizes charity dinners, plans block parties, writes a monthly community newsletter and remedies neighbors' problems in her role as tenant council president.

"I had one senior resident call me about a mouse in her kitchen," Lee says with a laugh. "I told her to call maintenance but I still had to go over there and make sure she calmed down."

"That's what Wendy does," Skipworth says. "If something's got to be done, she takes care of it."

Lee arranged the inauguration trip and sold seats at $50 per person whenever she found a free moment. She won't make any money on the venture.

"She's doing this out of the goodness of her heart," says Lindsay.


Occasionally, life challenges the jovial, sassy Lee.

"There's times when I'm so tired, I fly off in a minute," she states.

Morton Homes is a public housing complex and there have been waves of violence and drug dealing. Her half-brother and a 6-year old girl were shot in front of Lee's two-story rowhome in 2001. Both survived.

For strength Lee relies upon memories of her grandmother, Ada Thomas, who passed away last August at 84. A light-skinned African-American, she battled prejudice from both whites and blacks. But she was resolute in her abilities and remained politically active all her life. She served as a committee person in Brewerytown for more than 40 years.

"She's who convinced me to become a committee person," Lee acknowledges as tears well in her eyes. "I come from a long line of strong black women."

Even if the Obama presidency doesn't solve all the world's problems, Lee feels that Obama's very presence will set a positive tone for America.

"I have faith in him," she says. "I really do."

Lee still has a few available seats on her bus. If she fills that bus, she has tentative arrangements for a second.

"I'll work till the very end," she says.