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Virginia McLaurin, centenarian who danced with Obamas, dies

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Virginia McLaurin, a daughter of Black sharecroppers who, as a centenarian, became an internet celebrity with her exuberant dance upon meeting Barack and Michelle Obama in 2016, her moves the expression of boundless joy at seeing an African American family in the White House, died Nov. 14 at her son’s home in Olney, Md. She was believed to be 113.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said her son Felipe Cardoso.

Ms. McLaurin grew up in South Carolina during the Jim Crow era, received no formal schooling beyond the eighth grade and came to Washington in 1939. She worked as a nanny, a laundress, a seamstress and a house cleaner, never imagining, she said, that the racial order of American society would change.

When Obama, the first African American president, met with Ms. McLaurin on Feb. 18, 2016, during a White House commemoration of Black History Month, their encounter seemed to embody the arc of history.

Dancing 106-year-old describes the day she charmed the Obamas: ‘I can die smiling now’

In a scene captured in a video that was viewed tens of millions of times online, a presidential aide announced Ms. McLaurin as she entered the Blue Room of the White House. She raised her arms and cane skyward and shimmied as President Obama walked over to greet her, towering over her 4-foot-11 frame.

“It’s an honor. It’s an honor,” Ms. McLaurin exclaimed.

Holding her hand as he escorted her to meet the first lady, Obama jokingly admonished the jubilant Ms. McLaurin to slow down. Not heeding his advice, she broke into a dance, which the Obamas quickly joined.

“I thought I would never live to get in the White House,” Ms. McLaurin declared, “and I tell you, I am so happy. A Black president. A Black wife. And I’m here to celebrate Black history.”

Virginia Lugnia Campbell was born in Cheraw, S.C., her delivery assisted by a midwife. South Carolina had no official record of her birth, according to her son, but Ms. McLaurin said she believed her birth date to have been recorded in a family Bible as March 12, 1909. Government documents later issued to her recorded the year of her birth as 1916 or 1917, her son said.

Ms. McLaurin grew up in a home with no electricity. Light was provided by a kerosene lamp that she later donated to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington as an artifact representing the lives of Black sharecroppers in the early 20th century.

She told The Washington Post that she was married at 13 and moved with her husband to New Jersey, where he was killed in a barroom fight. She later settled in Washington to be near a sister.

Her life was defined by segregation, de facto if not de jure. “This was White, and this was Black,” Ms. McLaurin told The Post. “There were so many things we weren’t allowed to do. We were raised up like that. … I felt like it would always be that way.”

Ms. McLaurin lived for decades on the same block in the District’s Petworth neighborhood. For 24 years, from 1994 until the year she was believed to turn 110, she volunteered 40 hours a week through the United Planning Organization’s Foster Grandparent Program. She was a constant presence at C. Melvin Sharpe Health School, which served students with severe disabilities, and later at Roots Public Charter School for preschoolers, feeding children, reading to them and encouraging them in their schoolwork.

“Her style was a lot of hugs, a lot of kisses,” said Cheryl M. Christmas, the project director of the UPO Foster Grandparent Program in the District. “Just unconditional love no matter what.”

“She had a whole long life of doing good,” said Deborah Menkart, a friend who met Ms. McLaurin through her volunteer work and assisted her with her needs. “She was famous for her one moment with the Obamas but really had a lifetime of dedication to her community.”

Public recognition of Ms. McLaurin’s volunteering helped lead to her visit with the Obamas, as did a petition she submitted to the White House in 2014.

“I know you are a busy man, but I wish I could meet you,” Ms. McLaurin wrote to President Obama. “I would love to meet you. I could come to your house to make things easier.”

When the moment finally came, she said, “it was the joy of my entire life. I can die smiling now.”

Ms. McLaurin became a celebrity in the District and beyond. Months after her White House visit, she attended her first Washington Nationals game, dancing on the field as she was presented with a personalized jersey. She drew the Harlem Globetrotters to Washington for subsequent birthday celebrations, which she shared with D.C. schoolchildren. People stopped her on the street to ask to have their photo taken with her.

After dancing with the Obamas, 107-year-old spins a ball with Harlem Globetrotters

A fundraising campaign on Ms. McLaurin’s behalf allowed her to move into a better apartment and access services, including dental care, that she had previously not been able to afford. She had lost her photo ID in a purse-snatching years earlier and, without a formal record of her birth, had been unable to replace it. In 2016, with the intervention of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, she was able to obtain a new District ID.

Ms. McLaurin was also gifted an iPad, so that she could watch the viral video of her with the Obamas for herself.

After her death, Barack and Michelle Obama tweeted the video of their encounter and the message, “Rest in peace, Virginia. We know you’re up there dancing.”

Ms. McLaurin’s son said that she was married three times, including to Marshall McLaurin and Willie Johnson Sr. She and Johnson had two children, including a surviving daughter, Idamae Streeter of the District, and a son who predeceased Ms. McLaurin, Willie Johnson Jr.

Ms. McLaurin took Cardoso in when he was 3 and later formally adopted him. In addition to her children, survivors include numerous grandchildren, great-grandchildren and other descendants.

When she reflected on her years, Ms. McLaurin described a sense of awe at the change that she had seen transpire. “A lot of things happened in my life,” she said, “that I didn’t think would ever happen.”