Dancing 106-year-old describes the day she charmed the Obamas: 'I can die smiling now'
By COLBY ITKOWITZ | The Washington Post | Published: February 23, 2016
As she picked cotton and shucked corn in the fields of South Carolina with her parents, it never occurred to the young Virginia McLaurin that she might one day eat in the same restaurants as white people. And the notion that she would live to see the country elect a black president, and that one day she'd be invited to the White House and clasp his hands and dance with him for all the world to see?
Well, McLaurin could not have imagined that even deep into her old age.
And yet it happened — and was captured in a video released by the White House on Sunday night of McLaurin meeting the Obamas during a Black History Month celebration last week.
Overnight, the 106-year-old Washington resident became an Internet sensation. But by lunchtime Monday, McLaurin still hadn't seen the video herself.
Her phone had begun ringing at 5 a.m. in her apartment, on the upper Northwest Washington block where she has lived since 1939. It was her grandson. He'd just seen her dancing with the president and the first lady on the news.
"I didn't know you were going to be on TV," he said.
"Neither did I," she replied.
She kept trying to catch a glimpse, but the phone never stopped ringing with calls from family and friends who'd seen the clip.
Then finally, deep into the afternoon on Monday, McLaurin got to watch the moment that had made her famous. Her eyes were fixed on the iPhone in her lap, as she sat in a backroom of Busboys and Poets restaurant near U Street in Washington — in front of a mural of civil rights icons. Her mouth dropped open: There she was, dancing with her beloved president. She seemed almost as amazed by the technology that was allowing her to relive it all.
"Where can I get one of these?" she asked about the smartphone video. "I wish this was mine."
For a few hours over lunch, she reflected on her life and those precious few minutes she had fulfilling a dream she didn't even know to entertain until 2008.
"I was so happy to meet the black president," she said. "I was so happy to shake his hand, and his wife was so nice. It was the joy of my entire life. I can die smiling now."
McLaurin was born in South Carolina in 1909 at a time when slavery was still a fresh memory and African American kids in the South didn't go to school past eighth grade. She married young, just 13, a fact she's bashful to share. She lived briefly with her husband in northern New Jersey before he was killed in a bar brawl, and she moved to Washington to be with her sister in 1939.
She had two children — her son has since passed, and her daughter is 83 years old — and did domestic work for families in Silver Spring, Md. She also managed a laundry shop when women weren't allowed to handle the men's suits.
McLaurin still lives alone and does all her own housework, except for laundry because there are no machines in her unit. She has too many grandchildren (and great, and great-great, and great-great-great grandchildren and so on) to count, but she estimates them at about 50. Her grandkids' grandchild has a baby.
As a child growing up in the South, she said she didn't imagine that there could ever be a world where white and black people were integrated. When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. marched in Washington in 1963, she didn't know whether his dream would ever be realized.
"This was white and this was black. There were so many things we weren't allowed to do, we were raised up like that," she said. "I felt like it would always be that way."
Still, she was never bitter — quite the opposite. People ask her all the time how she remains so positive. "I have nothing to do but be happy," she says. But do you ever worry, they'll ask. "Why? It ain't gonna help."
Deeply faithful, McLaurin attends a weekly Bible study, and she said it's helped her stay upbeat and healthy. That, she said, and a diet of fried beans and peas. Other than a back surgery about 50 years ago, she hasn't had any major health issues.
"The Bible said a good laugh is the best medicine," she said. "You don't know who you're going to have to look to before you leave this world, so you treat people how you want to be treated. Treat people nice and somebody will always treat you nice."
She was watching "Judge Judy" at home last week when her friend, Deborah Menkart, called to tell her there was a good chance that they were going to the White House for a Black History Month celebration. A day or so later, it was confirmed that the very next day at 3:30 p.m. they were going to the White House.
McLaurin wanted to go shopping for a new dress and new shoes, but there wasn't time. So she wore the electric blue suit she'd worn to her 103rd birthday party where former Washington Mayor Marion Barry had been a surprise guest. She said she danced with him, too. Her granddaughter painted her nails a bright blue to match — something Michelle Obama later noticed and complimented her on.
In 2014, another friend had submitted a petition to the White House with a note from McLaurin. "I know you are a busy man, but I wish I could meet you," she said. "I would love to meet you. I could come to your house to make things easier. I pray to the Lord that I would be able to meet you one day."
But it wasn't until Menkart, 59, put a call out on Facebook on behalf of her friend to visit the White House that it actually happened. Marco Davis, the deputy director of the administration's Hispanics education initiative, saw her post and made the connections.
The White House, on its official blog, wrote that Menkart had advocated for the meeting, citing McLaurin's longtime volunteer work. For more than 20 years, she's been a foster grandmother to city youth. When the kids are upset, she tells them to "get the devil off your shoulder" and they leave their time with her laughing and smiling, she said.
It was in that same spirit that McLaurin sauntered into the Blue Room to meet the Obamas. She said she could barely contain her excitement.
And now that contagious glee has made her Internet-famous.
At Busboys and Poets, owner Andy Shallal came to greet her and told her she was an inspiration to everyone. "Thank you for letting me in here," she said.
"I remember where I came from," she said.
"It's an honor," he told her. "You made so many people light up."
After lunch, McLaurin leaned on her gold cane and shuffled onto 14th Street, not too far from the historic Howard Theatre, where back in the day she used to go dancing, doing a move she called "picking cherries" and once partying with James Brown. She could barely walk a few steps without passersby recognizing her and asking if she'd join them for a photo. She beamed, and happily posed with everyone, thanking them for taking the time.
"This is what it's all about," said the Rev. Lionel Edmonds, a pastor at Mount Lebanon Baptist Church, who stooped to kiss her forehead. "She's lived to this iconic moment. Every major event that has happened to the African American people she has witnessed. She's a walking, talking icon."
One of the first things McLaurin noticed when meeting Obama was how much he'd aged. But she still found him very handsome.
"I wish I could have 30 minutes alone with him," she said, mischievously. "Oh, you know how women think."