4 years later, city Boy Scout troop again will be marching into history

Members of Boy Scout Troop 358 rehearse for their inauguration performance.
Members of Boy Scout Troop 358 rehearse for their inauguration performance. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 21, 2013

Kyle Ramberan knows a lot of history for a 13-year-old. That's because, he likes to say, he's a part of it.

Ramberan and 39 other members of Germantown's Boy Scout Troop 358 will be the only scouts marching in President Obama's inauguration parade Monday, which is also Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

"We'll represent all the scouts in the country," Ramberan said, twitching and giddy with the prospect as he and his troop drilled in the basement of Grace Baptist Church of Germantown one night last week.

"It's King Day and the second inauguration of the first African American president. It's good and exciting."

In a rare convergence of historical moment and cultural iconography, the first black president and the martyred civil rights leader will both be honored on a cold January Monday.

And the all African American Troop 358 will play a role, marching smartly down Pennsylvania Avenue in new red jackets handed out at Grace Baptist during the meeting with a pleading admonition from troop leaders: "Just don't lose them."

Incredibly, this is the troop's second inauguration: It participated in Obama's first swearing-in ceremony in 2009, chosen from a group of 3,000 scout troops. Some of the scouts going this time were there four years ago. Their double invitation is a mystery the White House hasn't explained.

"I'm not even sure why we were chosen," said Scoutmaster Brian Wallace, explaining that a scout's parent had written a letter to the Obama camp on behalf of the troop four years ago, and somehow the guys were twice summoned.

"But one day, these young men will read history books about the first African American president and know they were part of both his inaugurations. It helps to build their self-esteem and gives inner-city boys something to be proud of."

In many African American homes, pictures of Obama and King (along with Jesus) hang on the walls beside family photos, sociologist Elijah Anderson of Yale University noted.

That the grandparents and parents of the scouts display these heroes along with photos of the scouts themselves is daily proof for the children of the linkage African Americans feel toward their leaders, Anderson said.

In fact, he added, "there's such a connection with Obama by black people, he can do no wrong. And children in the community understand that."

After practicing their marching on the tan and brown linoleum in the church basement, the scouts talked animatedly in their new troop jackets, the tags still hanging from their zippers.

The young men will ride in a bus leaving Philadelphia at 4 a.m. Monday and will return that night.

The $4,000 trip is being paid for with donations from the community, as well as from Grace Baptist Church, the Cradle of Liberty Council (which runs the Boy Scouts in this area), and other organizations.

Many of the boys asked what the trip would be like, and scout Nigel Bundick was able to tell them.

"I went to the first inauguration when I was 13," Bundick, 17, a senior at the High School of Engineering and Science, said. "I was happy to go. But now I'm thinking about the actual implications of Obama being elected. It's empowering for young African American men to have a black president."

Overhearing her son in the basement din, Dawn Bundick, sales and marketing manager for the Hard Rock Cafe, said that the first time, "Nigel just wanted to go home. It was cold."

But four years later, "he's gone through high school with Obama as president. The importance of being an American and of a young black man has solidified for my son."

Derrick Kershaw, 20, an Eagle Scout, was also at the first inaugural.

"I still feel the hope from the first time," said Kershaw, now a sophomore at Temple University who's been invited back to help escort the troop. "Before Obama, your parents said you could be anything, but you didn't see role models except in sports.

"But President Obama really makes me believe I can be something. Before, as a black man you were limited. But now you feel that the ceiling has been taken away."

Marcus Kellam, 25, also an Eagle Scout from the troop, was 21 and graduating from Pennsylvania State University when he went to Obama's first inauguration as a volunteer helper.

He'll be going again to lend a hand. Kellam is a special assistant to the executive director of the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

That first march was memorable, Kellam said, "because it was the first time I was saluted by anyone other than a scout." Military people snapped off salutes to Kellam and the others at the inaugural; many people in the armed forces were once scouts.

The first four years of the Obama presidency allowed young black men "to see success is not impossible," Kellam said.

And though Obama "had his ups and downs," he expanded health care and helped keep interest rates on student loans lower, Kellam pointed out. "A lot of good things came out of this administration," he said.

As though attending its second inaugural isn't thrilling enough, Scout Troop 358 will also celebrate its 60th anniversary this year, said Charles Whiting, chairman of the troop committee.

Whiting said 358 is one of the oldest African American troops in the United States.

It is, however, not the first African American troop to march in a presidential inaugural parade, according to a spokesman for the Presidential Inaugural Committee. That honor belonged to Troop 77 from Norfolk, Va., which participated in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's inauguration in 1933.

Still, there's enough history here to satisfy everyone, Whiting said.

"Part of Dr. King's dream was that we all be represented," Whiting said, referencing the line in King's "I Have a Dream" speech about "little black boys and black girls . . . able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers."

Beyond that, Whiting said, perhaps among his young men, there's a future president developing.

He added: "That's not a pipe dream anymore."

Charles Whiting discusses the honor of his scout troop marching in the inaugural parade: www.philly.com/boyscouts

Contact Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.

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