Over the four days that Josh Kramer of Innovative Pest Management led efforts to refurbish and debug Virginia McLaurin’s apartment, he was fascinated by the stories she told about growing up in North and South Carolina, and the past half-century she has spent living in Washington, D.C. One of her most vivid accounts was of seeing James Brown perform at the historic Howard Theatre shortly before its temporary closing following the 1968 Civil Rights riots.
“We had come to Miss Virginia’s apartment in response to an investigative story aired on WJLA-TV just before Christmas 2014. Then 105, she was one of the oldest citizens living in Washington, D.C.,” says Kramer. “The news story reported that her apartment building had been badly neglected. She was living in a dilapidated unit with deteriorating walls, peeling paint, nonfunctioning smoke detectors and — worst of all — a severe bed bug infestation.”No stranger to pro bono work, Kramer, who had recently completed a program to help prevent homelessness, reacted quickly. He called the station to get connected to McLaurin and, within days, had a crew in place to not only treat for bed bugs but also make the structural repairs needed to get the apartment back in shape.
“As soon as we walked in, we realized that bed bug remediation would, in itself, not be enough; the unit was overrun with the infestation. Bed bugs were harboring in the cracks where the baseboards had rotted, beneath the peeling paint, everywhere. Making matters more difficult, we hadn’t been able to get the property manager’s approval to heat-treat the apartment. It was clear we would need to take a non-traditional approach,” Kramer recounts.
The team began scraping the walls to uncover the bugs, then they vacuumed the loose debris and sealed as many harborage sites as possible. They repaired, patched and painted walls. And, of course, they treated for bed bugs. Once the bugs were gone, Kramer had a new bed delivered to McLaurin, who had been sleeping on an air mattress. (The infestation had forced her to discard all of her furniture except for a folding chair and a TV.) She was delighted. “I’m as happy as a bug in a rug,” she told reporter Horace Holmes of WJLA, who covered the story’s happy ending.
“No one should have to live in those kind of conditions — especially someone like Miss Virginia, who is so full of positive energy, so enthusiastic about life,” says Kramer. “She cried tears of joy when she saw her new bed and her bug-free apartment. For us, it was a wonderful experience to meet such an amazing person and have the ability to help her.”
PRESIDENTIAL AMBITIONS. As she got to know the Innovative Pest Management team during the refurbishment process, McLaurin shared, among her stories of the old days, that her dream was to meet Barack Obama. For someone who had lived through racial segregation and the Civil Rights Movement, witnessing the election of the first African-American president had been a monumental moment. To shake his hand would make her even happier than a bug in a rug.
In a YouTube video, McLaurin expressed her desire to meet the president and his family: “I would love to meet you and your whole family,” she said. “I didn’t think I’d ever live to see a colored president. I pray for you every day of my life.”
Kramer engaged his wife, a public interest attorney, in the effort to get McLaurin her visit. The news station, neighbors and friends (including McLaurin’s tenant advocate, Tamira Ramirez), all leveraged their community and social media networks to build momentum and support for the presidential visit. As the story gained traction, neighboring resident and longtime community activist Deborah Menkart reached out to connections that ultimately resulted in an invitation to the White House.
“I am so happy!” McLaurin said as she met the president and first lady. “A black president! And a black wife! And I’m here to celebrate black history. Yeah, that’s what I’m here for!”
Celebrate they did, as McLaurin danced in joy. “What’s the secret to still dancing at 106?” the president asked. “We are so happy to have you here,” added the first lady.
Media coverage of McLaurin’s historic visit was widespread, and, of course, the video went viral. When the Harlem Globetrotters recently came to town, they asked if she would join them at Verizon Center so that they could present her with a jersey; she suggested that, instead, they visit her at Roots Public Charter School, where she volunteers as much as 40 hours a week as a “foster grandma.” Moose Weekes and Zeus McClurkin took “Grandma Virginia” up on her invitation, showing up to entertain and inspire the students, as they honored the centenarian.
The outpouring of generosity from the community has been overwhelming as well. McLaurin’s MyCare crowdfunding account is up to $30,000 — well on the way to its $50,000 goal — and a Chicago furniture company sent a truck with brand-new furniture to her apartment.
On her 107th birthday in March, she celebrated with 400 of her (many newfound) friends, including Kramer and his family. (Josh’s son, Ashton, is 99 years younger than McLaurin to the day.)
“I never had so much great attention before,” says McLaurin. “I thank everybody for the gifts, the joy…for everything they’ve said and done for me. If I had a million dollars, I would try to give everybody one of those dollars. Thank you, thank you from the depths of my heart.”
The author is a frequent contributor to PCT.