As kids headed to school at the Brightwood School in Washington, DC, on Election Day, many had no idea there was a mini celebrity in their midst.
“I saw you in the newspaper and on television!” one woman shrieked.
She was talking to Virginia McLaurin, 107, who garnered national adoration earlier this year when she was seen dancing with President Barack Obama in the White House. Not just because she was a centenarian experiencing joy — she danced, she explained, because she was experiencing black history.
"I thought I would never live to get in the White House,” she said then. “And I tell you, I am so happy. A black president! A black wife! And I'm here to celebrate black history. Yeah, that's what I'm here for."
But today, her moment to vote at Brightwood transformed an otherwise quiet polling place often seen on Election Day.
“Grandma! I missed you,” Sharon Sidney, from Ward 1, said. “Back up, y’all. This my grandma.”
Young curbside voting assistants whipped out smartphones to capture the moment on Snapchat. Older friends and parents gawked, while sharing stories from their time together in church on Sundays.
Sure, part of the excitement was from seeing a viral video star. But the shared jubilation came from seeing a woman serving as a physical example of the history of black struggle in the US.
McLaurin left South Carolina for the North decades ago, to escape some of the vicious grips of segregation. She experienced the blatant restrictions that kept black men and women from voting after the 19th Amendment and, at best, until the Voting Rights Act of 1964. And Tuesday, she was at Brightwood to vote.
"She's history, she's living history,” Sidney said. “If she can come out and vote, everyone should come out and vote. It's time for a change"
"It's so important just to hear her story and to see her vote,” Vanessa Cole, a school bus driver from Maryland, said. “She knows what's going on. Just to be in her presence today is amazing. 107? Wow."
McLaurin grew up in a sharecropping community in South Carolina, when black citizens were largely blocked from voting. They also faced racial violence for attempting to organize against disenfranchisement. She described to me in February how just going to restaurants in the Jim Crow South was virtually impossible.
Since her spirited shuffle with the Obamas, she’s met the Harlem Globetrotters for her birthday, plus Dusty Baker and the Washington Nationals, and helped change local legislation preventing the need for DC residents to have a birth certificate to get photo identification, bringing attention to restrictive voter ID complications for elderly citizens.
The realities people of color dealt with in her lifetime, she said, could return under a Donald Trump–led America. The idea of a Trump presidency spurred McLaurin to vote, particularly after such a racially charged election cycle.
“We don’t know if he’ll get in [the White House],” she says, “which I’m sure he won’t, but if he does get in, I don’t know what’s going to happen. We’ll just have to live and hope and let the Lord do his work.”
After talking to the flock, her friend Deborah Menket pushed her wheelchair through the halls of Brightwood. In a miniature gym with signs of “Vote Aqui/ Vote Here” lining the walls, the same whispers began about her presence.
"Wait a minute, sweetheart. You know you a celebrity, right?" Ricardo Edwards hollered at McLaurin before flashing his camera.
"She's the woman who danced with the Obamas? Oh, nah, we definitely taking a picture," school security guard Mikeshae Settles said.
Even the precinct captain for the ward stopped her shift to bask in McLaurin’s presence.
"It makes a change for our community,” Amaris White said. “My grandma didn't live to see 107. It shows they've seen the changes of them not being able to vote to now voting and seeing someone go through that timeline of change. It's important to us black Americans and our youth. We can say she officially made her mark on this era."
And with that, McLaurin cast her ballot. She hugged the polling officials as they made calls to their friends about the “local celebrity” in their midst. She wheeled from the building, the sunlight dancing off her face, past a picture of the black president who made her toes tap with wonder, before disappearing back onto the street.