When Andrea Hall leads the nation in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at Joe Biden’s inauguration next week, she’ll not only represent the kind of progress envisioned by the incoming president but she’ll also deliver the words with a sense of mission, doing her part to bring together a divided country.
“Everything it expresses, I want to embody that in that moment,” Hall, a Georgian who in 2004 became the first Black woman promoted to fire captain in the history of the City of South Fulton Fire Rescue Department, told CNN on Thursday. “And just making sure that I am representing my family, my professional family here in South Fulton, representing the nation, and making sure that they understand the passion from which I speak those words about being indivisible as a nation … because that’s what it’s going to take to move our country forward.”
Hall, 47, also serves as the president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 3920 in Georgia, the first major labor group to back Biden during his presidential campaign. She’ll be among several notable speakers at next Wednesday’s ceremonies: Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez will perform, and Amanda Gorman, the first-ever national youth poet laureate, will deliver the poetry reading.
Tony Allen, the CEO of the inauguration committee, said Hall and the other inauguration participants represent “one clear picture of the grand diversity of our great nation and will help honor and celebrate the time-honored traditions” of the presidential inauguration. In a statement announcing the selections, Allen pointed to a common theme throughout Biden’s campaign: “We are an America united in overcoming the deep divisions and challenges facing our people, unifying the country, and restoring the soul of our nation.”
Hall immediately agreed to participate, she told CNN, but beyond the nervousness she anticipates feeling, she’s well aware of this particularly fraught moment in US history – an inauguration taking place among a politically fractured nation, a pandemic, a harsh economic downturn and the aftermath of last week’s domestic terror attack on the US Capitol.
She wants to make sure “I am being an appropriate or the proper representative for the words in the Pledge of Allegiance.”
The word allegiance itself, Hall explained, is saying that “you are giving yourself to this great nation and you are pledging yourself to defend it, to protect it, to take care of it, to honor it, to respect it.”
“Those are all things that I try to embody in my regular life,” she said.
A ‘servant’ leader
Hall started her career as a firefighter in 1993 in Albany, Georgia, as the city’s first female firefighter before joining South Fulton in 1999.
“It was a challenge, and I was up for the challenge,” Hall said when asked why she wanted to be a firefighter, a profession long dominated not just by men, but by White men.
She considers herself a “servant leader,” one whose job is to serve. That’s how she sees Biden, too.
“I think he has the right amount of empathy, the right amount of experience and wisdom to lead us in that direction,” Hall said.
Her younger sister, Whitney Williams-Smith, who was named the Savannah Fire Department’s first Black and female chief fire marshal in April 2020, credits Hall’s mentorship and hard work for where she is today. As a young girl, Williams-Smith would iron fire department insignia patches onto her older sister’s work shirts and eventually followed in her footsteps to become a firefighter with the Albany Fire Department.
On Wednesday, Williams-Smith will have the honor of joining her sister at the inauguration as her guest.
“She’s always been my superhero,” Williams-Smith told CNN. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without her. She opened a lot of doors for me. … To be part of the occasion with her is so amazing.”
Hall herself told CNN she’s “humbled,” but acknowledged that the moment is “so much bigger than me.”
“This is really about the firefighters and the front-line workers who represent our industry in this country. It is about Fulton and the people who I represent here in the community of people that we serve,” she said. “It’s really about us being on the precipice of moving our country forward to a more united place.”
CNN’s Sarah Mucha and Arlette Saenz contributed to this report.