Virginia McLaurin was born in 1909 in South Carolina. She grew up in the Jim Crow era in the South and only went to school through the third grade. She was needed in the fields, working with her parents.
Virginia married when she was 13. She was part of the Great Migration of African Americans to the North and relocated to New Jersey. After her husband died in 1939, she relocated to Washington, DC to be near her sister. She had two children with her husband as well as an adopted boy.
Virginia worked as a seamstress for most of her life. In her 60s she became an active volunteer. When her extensive service to others became known, she was invited to the White House by President and Michelle Obama* (see below). She was 106 years old at the time, but that didn’t stop her from dancing with the President and the First Lady.
Virginia died in 2022 at the age of 113. She left behind 50 descendants, including a great-great-great grandchild.
Just imagine how our society opened up during Virginia’s lifetime. Women earned the right to vote. While African Americans theoretically could vote after the Civil War and the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870, their voting rights were only effectively made real during Virginia’s lifetime. Also during Virginia’s lifetime, people gained the right to marry who they loved, regardless of sexuality. And, at least for part of Virginia’s lifetime, women’s bodily autonomy and reproductive rights were recognized—though these rights are now under threat.
During Virginia’s life, basic rights were extended in employment, education, healthcare, and in other areas. We became aware of our impact on our climate. We defeated a fascist dictator in Europe and saw democracy take root in former Soviet Republics. Immigrants from around the globe came to America and made remarkable contributions to our society, despite the discrimination to which they were often subjected.
In the span of one person’s lifetime, we have made some significant progress in opening our society. Just imagine the lifetime of a child born today who lives for 100 years. Will that child see a continuing opening of society? Or will that child see hard won rights reversed? Will we still believe in democracy, or will we see demagogues using misinformation to lull us into an authoritarian society? Will we value the contributions of all of us, or will we once again let status-threats divide us as a nation? Will we be open to facing our challenges, or will we use denial as a political strategy? Will we foster kindness as a strength of our society or view it as weakness and embrace the cruel mentality of survival of the fittest? Will children born today experience openings or closings in society? The answer to all of these questions is up to each of us.
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“The future depends on what you do today.” – Mahatma Gandhi
This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.