‘31 words’: Capt. Andrea Hall reflects on leading Inauguration Ceremonies’ Pledge of Allegiance
The Georgia captain was selected to represent the fire service as a tribute to the dedication and commitment of firefighters during a tumultuous 2020
On the morning of the 59th Inauguration Ceremonies, as Lady Gaga stepped down from the podium and it was her turn to perform, South Fulton County (Ga.) Fire Rescue Capt. Andrea Hall’s mind went blank. She turned to her sister, slightly panicked, and said, “I forgot the words.”
Her sister, a fellow firefighter, didn’t sugarcoat her response: “Girl, you’d better get it together,” she said, and supplied Hall with the first three words.
That was all she needed. Hall rose from her seat and climbed the steps. She took a small gulp, removed her mask and smiled.
“I pledge allegiance,” she began, her hands moving in rhythm with the words in American Sign Language, adding another level of diversity and inclusion to the historic event in which Joe Biden became the 46th president of the United States and Kamala Harris became the first female and first Black vice president.
Hand-picked to represent the fire service
In January, members of then-President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team, seeking to highlight the contributions and sacrifice of firefighters after a tumultuous and exhausting 2020, asked the IAFF to recommend a member to be a part of the ceremony.
General President Harold Schaitberger said he immediately thought of Hall.
“When the Biden Senior Transition Team asked me to recommend a union leader and rank-and-file firefighter, my job was easy,” he said in a January press release.
Hall, president of IAFF Local 3920, was floored by the honor.
“I was very surprised he would think about little ol’ me down in South Georgia,” she said, smiling.
On the contrary, Hall’s fire service advocacy had made her a newsmaker. In 2019, she successfully helped organize support for a local ordinance that, once passed, paved the way to allow for collective bargaining by firefighters.
Connecting the pledge’s history to 2021
It was impossible to ignore the fact that a mere two weeks prior to Hall’s participation in the Inaugural Ceremonies at the U.S. Capitol, on Jan. 6, a violent insurrection took place in the very same building. And yet, on the morning of Jan. 20, the energy on the platform was anything but somber, Hall said, describing it as “warm.”
“You could sort of feel the transition in the air; it was palpable, from what we had two weeks ago to now,” Hall said. “It was almost like a release.”
She specifically cited the lack of negativity among attendees, noting “it was just all love.”
Her research into the history of the pledge, an important part of her personal preparation for the event, drew a similar comparison.
“The pledge was written, initially, for young immigrant children whose parents had immigrated to this country,” Hall explained, “and it was a way for them to demonstrate their allegiance and grow their love for this country.” In other words, “unify,” she added.
“I thought that was very appropriate for the occasion because, in some way, we’re all immigrants to this country,” Hall said.
“We’ve all come from some place and made this place our home, and what better way for us to demonstrate our love and allegiance to this country than by saying those 31 words – together.”
Hall didn’t just rely on the words of the pledge, either. As the daughter of a deaf parent, her decision to sign the pledge in ASL was deeply personal.
It was also a secret – at least, until the day of the event’s rehearsal.
“I didn’t want a little red bead on my chest if I started throwing my hands,” Hall joked, referencing the increased security at the event. She sought permission to sign and was only informed her request was approved on the morning of the Inauguration.
Embracing the emotion of the moment
Though her time on the platform was short, the magnitude and meaning of the day was heightened for Hall.
Following the ceremonies, and back in the Capitol building waiting to be cleared by security, Hall allowed herself to fully feel everything.
“When it was over, I cried like a baby,” she shared. “I was inconsolable for maybe 15 to 20 minutes. I didn’t realize how much of it I had been holding on to that entire week; I think that’s when the vastness of that event took a hold.”
Her ability to compartmentalize duty from emotion is a trait she credits to her profession.
“One of the gifts that firefighting gives you is the ability to be calm when there’s a lot of chaos,” she said.
Like so many others, 2020 was a difficult year for Hall. Because of her exposure to COVID-19 as a first responder, it has been a full year since she has seen her mother in person, and she lost several family members and close friends to the virus.
“It’s very surreal, even now,” she said. “You just can’t imagine having to endure something like this. So, on top of having to come to work every day and serve your community, suffering these losses was very challenging.”
Even as Hall reflected on the difficulty of her personal hardships, she said the pandemic gave her the opportunity to see society and her interaction with others in a new light.
“COVID-19 really helped me to understand the value and importance of human connection, of being able to see one another, hug one another, and how important that is to our mental, emotional and physical health,” she said.
That even applies to those you don’t necessarily miss seeing every day.
“COVID helped me to understand why Batman needed the Joker,” she laughed. “You even need your nemesis sometimes.”
Strengthening those connections is her goal for the new year.
“We’re not built to do anything alone,” she said.
‘You don’t even know you should be intimidated’
Meeting the moment is not new for Hall. In 1993, she was the first Black woman hired by the City of Albany Fire Department, conquering a challenge she accepted from a cousin who was a firefighter with the department at the time.
The milestone wasn’t lost on Hall, but it also wasn’t what she focused on.
“What’s so interesting about youth and naivety is that you don’t even know that you should be intimidated,” she said. “I certainly didn’t feel that way, I was just doing what Andrea does. I didn’t know the magnitude of that at the time.”
Later in her career, Hall joined South Fulton County Fire Rescue and in 2004 became the first Black woman promoted to captain.
Despite doing so, blazing a trail wasn’t what she set out to do, comparing her career progression to a hedgehog with her “nose down, moving forward and not really looking backward” to see what she had accomplished.
Hall’s experience at the Inauguration, a day when the nation saw its first female and first woman of color sworn in as vice president, reminded her of the importance of taking stock in your victories.
“You do have to stop sometimes and really take in what you have been able to accomplish, and the impact you’ve had in whatever you’re doing,” Hall reflected.
Her 28 years of dedication to her community, to her union chapter and to the women who came behind her, speak volumes.