On his desk beside the nameboard that tells you he is director of marching bands at Howard University in Washington DC, John Newson keeps a miniature bale of cotton.
When he lifts it and turns it in his hands his eyes take on a curiously distant quality and stories of this country’s divided past come tumbling out.
He is a dignified, professorial figure these days, but he can remember the old times in rural Louisiana when he was put out of school three hours before the local white kids and sent to the local plantation fields to chop cotton – back-breaking work for a little boy in the boiling heat of the Southern summer.
He remembers too the local laws about “eye-balling” – no black man or woman dared to risk making eye contact with any of the white folks in the streets of their little town.
You looked down, or looked away, or you got a ticket and a fine.
Mr Newson’s band, from the college they call “The Black Harvard”, will be marching in the inaugural parade in the heart of their home city – Howard is just a few blocks across town from the White House.
It is a small story of change in a country which has changed enormously since little John Newson was sent out into the cottonfields of Louisiana all those years ago.
He is moved at the idea of a black man taking power in the White House, and not just for what it says about the long road African-Americans have travelled since he baled cotton when he should have been sitting in class or playing with his friends.
Washington DC is sometimes called Chocolate City, and it is a curiously divided place.
The tiny governing elite – which tends to live and work in the glittering centre – is surrounded by seas of largely black streets.
Mr Newson wonders if Barack Obama might be the man to bring together those two disparate identities sharing the same space.
After all, he commands the ruling elite now, and yet he can still talk comfortably with the black street.
Not that Mr Newson believes the election of Mr Obama means an end to the African-American journey. To illustrate his point he told me this story about what happened when he and his wife took three of their grandchildren back to a four-star hotel in Louisiana a few years ago to show them the Old South in which they had grown up.
“My wife and the three grandkids went to the swimming pool and on two occasions when they got in, all the white folks who were swimming got out and left,” he told me.
“My wife even stayed in the water for nearly two hours to see if they would come back – and they didn’t.”
As Mr Newson said, Barack Obama’s election is a moment of symbolism and he will have huge powers – but he cannot make people stay in swimming pools together.
America – and the South in particular – still have some changing to do.
James Kilby is another African-American who will be watching the inaugural parade with particular pride.
In the Lyndon Johnson White House in the mid-1960s he was a young messenger boy – probably one of the few ways a black man could get into the building back then.
He lives in Virginia, near Washington, and he too is bruised by the past.
He was in the first group of black students to be enrolled at his local whites-only high school in the town of Front Royal after his father fought a celebrated court case against the local school board.
He remembers the wave of intimidation that was unleashed on the family when his father, with the support of the civil-liberties group the NAACP, filed his court papers.
“We had three cows poisoned, a bloody sheet hung over our mail box and night riders driving past the house firing shots at it… even, years later, a burning cross planted in the lawn,” he told me.
“But my father wouldn’t give up – in the end he bought a shotgun. They were some hard times.”
Mr Wilby, a preacher these days, is an optimist and sometimes his optimism pays off.
He always thought that one day he would get an invitation to his high school reunions and eventually, so he did – although he says it was not until 45 years after he had graduated.
He campaigned for Barack Obama and believes the new president really will deliver the change he promises.
But not all African-Americans here in DC are so sure.
For another point of view I turned to Corey Crane, who runs a tour company called Chocolate City.
It takes visitors around all the familiar city landmarks like the White House and the Capitol, and then talks about them from the point of view not of the powerful men who occupied them, but of the enslaved craftsmen who built them.
He believes that black Americans made a great historical error in the 1960s when they relaxed their campaign for civil rights and integration at the first sign of progress, turning their back in many cases on the “blacks only” hotels and restaurants which had sustained them during segregation in favour of the businesses which were newly opening to them.
“We thought America was accepting us with open arms as equals, so a lot of what we had and what we owned went by the wayside,” he says.
“And that’s why I say America’s not exactly accepting us with open arms now just by the election of a black man as president.”
Having said that, Mr Crane does also believe that the Obama presidency might help inspire black youngsters to aim high in life and work for more change – and he will be watching the inauguration.
The wider world, and white America, have seized on the election of Barack Obama as a moment of catharsis which somehow lays to rest all the wrongs of the past; talk to African-Americans around Washington DC and a different picture emerges.
They are fiercely proud of the present, and hopeful for the future, but are mindful of the past too.
This is still a divided country and to some extent DC remains a divided capital, or at least a capital with a split identity.
But none of this is meant to detract from the powerful symbolism of the moment when this country’s first black president takes office.
Not for the first time, when the Howard University Band strikes up on Tuesday, the ruling elite and the black street will rub shoulders together in the crowds around the White House.
In the euphoria of the moment at least, we can expect that diverse crowd to be marching in step.