Trained as a practical nurse at Georgetown University Hospital, McLaurin worked first as a private duty nurse for newborns before spending over 30 years as a nanny for Capitol Hill families. Admittedly unable to stay inside on a pretty day, Hattie’s adventures with her “babies” made her an expert in local businesses, libraries, merchants, Eastern Market, and the preschool scene in every neighborhood park. In this interview, she discusses the daily rhythms and familiar characters of Capitol Hill life, as well as major events that range from the 1968 riots to the devastating fire at the Arthur Capper Senior Public Housing complex in 2018.
Interview with Hattie McLaurin
Interview Date: November 21, 2019
Interviewer: Elizabeth Lewis
Transcriber: Elizabeth Lewis
photo by Elizabeth Lewis
START OF INTERVIEW
LEWIS: This is Elizabeth Lewis on November 21, 2019. I'm at my house on … Capitol Hill with Hattie McLaurin, that's spelled M-C-L-A-U-R-I-N, correct?
LEWIS: Hi, Hattie.
McLAURIN: Hi, Elizabeth, how are you today?
LEWIS: I'm great. I'm so glad you're going to do this with us today.
McLAURIN: I'm happy to do whatever I can and whatever you're going to ask, if it's some help to someone, then that's fine with me.
LEWIS: Well, you've been on the Hill for a long time. You know a lot about our neighborhood.
McLAURIN: I certainly do.
LEWIS: When did you come here?
McLAURIN: I came to DC in 1956.
LEWIS: And you came from North Carolina, right?
McLAURIN: Charlotte, North Carolina.
LEWIS: Can you tell us a little about growing up?
McLAURIN: Well, when I was a little girl, my grandmother … It was always a lot of kids because she had a lot of grandkids. She was the mother of 13 kids. So it was always kids around, and she taught us a lot about different things. If we lived to see a grown lady or a gentleman, [she said] to be kind, because the same people you meet going, you will meet them again. And she always told us to, whatever kind of job we had, to give it our best. If it was a job tasting pies, be honest and tell the truth: “It’s no good” or “It's good.” So that's the way I was brought up. My grandmother was a midwife. She delivered many babies. She was well known. So I'm just thankful that some of that passed on down to me.
LEWIS: Well, I know two things that passed on down to you: being a good cook, and being really good with babies.
McLAURIN: Well, I love babies, and even now. I've had quite a few. They still are my babies. If I live to be 90 or 100, they still my babies.
LEWIS: These are the children you took care of.
McLAURIN: These are the children that I've taken care of, and I had a lot. I started out [when] I met a lady in the hospital and she said, "You are so good." She said, "Would you like to work for me?" And I said, "Well, I don't know.” And she said, "Well, why don't you think about that and give me a call?" And she said, "Even when I can't use you, I will see that you'll have a job."
LEWIS: And this was at the hospital here in DC? Or North Carolina?
McLAURIN: No, in Maryland. I met her.
LEWIS: Oh, when you first moved up …
McLAURIN: The Barbanels (sp?).
LEWIS: Okay. And that's when you first moved up here. Do you know how to spell Barbanel?
McLAURIN: It's B-A-R … [discussion of spelling] Barbanels.
LEWIS: Okay. [More discussion of spelling]. So let's go back to North Carolina, just before you came up here. You grew up on a farm?
McLAURIN: Yeah. Sharecrop. Then later on, my grandfather bought his own land. Some of the land now has been sold to the highway department, part of [Highway] 85 is on some of the land. I don't know what happened. It's supposed to have been never sold. It's supposed to go on to generation to generation, but it wasn't. And most of it now is [indecipherable] and great-grands and great-great-grands are still living, but we're not getting anything.
LEWIS: Did he sell it to the government for the highway?
McLAURIN: I don't think so. My grandfather was passed when part of 85 took some of the land, so it was some of my uncles.
LEWIS: Oh, I see. So they sold it.
McLAURIN: I think so.
LEWIS: Now, when your grandmother was a midwife, were you ever involved? Did you learn anything?
McLAURIN: Yeah, as we grew older. They didn't tell us anything when we were small kids. If you had questions and you would go and ask, they would tell you something else, but when you grew older, my grandmother would take you, the older ones, and we would get the water started, the boiling, the hot water. And we wouldn't even know what it was for. And the next thing was heard was "Wah!' It was a baby. But we were in there seeing that the water was boiling.
LEWIS: Was that to sterilize instruments?
McLAURIN: Sterilize instruments and everything.
LEWIS: You told me once that she made a lot of teas and natural remedies for things.
McLAURIN: Yeah, my grandmother knew her herbs. She would go out into the woods and get different branches off of different trees, bark and stuff. Pine trees, she used to get the bark off of that, and bring it home and wash it and boil it. It was good for headache.
McLAURIN: Headaches. And jimsonweeds, she would get those and boil it in vinegar. And then she would take it out of that and take some of that vinegar and put it on the towel. And then she would put that jimsonweed in the towel and wrap it, and then she would tie it around your head. That was another [thing] good for headaches. A lot of people now say migraine headaches. It was just a headache when I was a little girl. But it would help your head.
When the babies wouldn't sleep at night, slept mostly in day, and they would cry, a lot of time it would be colic, but then sometimes they had their days and nights mixed up. So my grandmother always had a catnip tree, a bush, in the yard, like a sage bush. She kept those two items in her yard because she would go out there, break some of the branches off, come home, come in the kitchen, wash them, and boil it. And then when she boiled it, she took a cheesecloth and strained it. And then she would put a little bit of Karo Syrup in there and put it in the refrigerator so that when the baby needed it, it was there, and then they would warm it, you know, a little bit to give to the baby, so that made the baby sleep. That's why it's called catnip tea because it would make the baby rest.
And the pine needles were good for mumps when you had mumps. Not only that, if the boys had mumps, my grandmother would go and get a can of sardines and open it up, and she would put the oil right here [motions on the neck], on the neck, both sides, and below [motions to groin].
LEWIS: Below, too?
McLAURIN: And she kept them still. They weren't allowed to run and jump because by that sometimes mumps would leave a gentleman sterile …
LEWIS: I always heard that too.
McLAURIN: So the pine needles were good to drink, and also the sardines. Nobody went to the doctor. And three different measles were out when I was a little girl: the German measles, the red measles, and the black measles.
LEWIS: Oh, I've never heard of the black measles.
McLAURIN: Oh, yeah. And my grandmother used to take meal, corn meal, and she would mix that up and she would make that stiff. And then she would paste it all over our body and wrap us with cheesecloth. And then she would make ginger tea, make it real strong, and that would make them come on out.
LEWIS: Well you can buy oatmeal to put into bathtubs right now for children that have itchy measles.
McLAURIN: Uh huh. She used meal, just plain corn meal.
LEWIS: Do you remember her using that on you?
McLAURIN: No, my mom did. My mother did. When I had measles. And whooping cough, I don't guess a lot of people know about that. Whooping cough, my mother used sage. My grandmother and my mother would use sage for the baby that had whooping cough. They would make a tea. And then they would take the branch that they boiled, wait until it go cool, and then they would put a little bit of turpentine on the cloth that they were going to wrap it [with] and they would put it right here on the chest. So that was good for whooping cough.
LEWIS: Did they have a lot of whooping cough when you were growing up?
McLAURIN: Yes. Yes. Very, a lot.
LEWIS: That's scary.
McLAURIN: And measles. And also another thing when I was growing up, they had a problem with children cutting their teeth. They used to get alfalfa. It smelled terrible! [Laughter] And they would make a little sack-like, and they would put that alfalfa in that sack, and then sew it up, and then take a needle and take a string and run it through that little bag and tie it around the baby's neck. You could smell it all day long [laughs] but that helped them when they were cutting teeth. So that was good.
And another thing they did, if a baby came down or a child came down with the thrush, which you don't hear anything about these days … If a person's father has died … For instance, if your father has passed and I had the thrush or either my father had passed and you had the thrush and I never got to see my father, I could come and blow in your mouth and that would heal the thrush.
LEWIS: So a person, who had never seen their father …
McLAURIN: Yeah, that was a healing. And when children would come down with the thrush, people would already know whose children didn't get to see their fathers.
LEWIS: The children who had the thrush, that didn't mean they hadn't seen their fathers?
McLAURIN: No, it didn't matter. If I come to you and I had never seen my father, I would go to you and they would tell me to breathe into that person's mouth that had thrush.
LEWIS: That's so interesting. Now, you cooked a lot, or your grandmother cooked a lot, or was that your mother who cooked?
McLAURIN: All of them. Even down to the boys. My grandmother taught everybody to cook because she said you never know what's going to happen and you need to learn to do some things yourself. She said, "I know I'm not going to be with ya'll always," and she said, "But even if I could, you need to learn to do these things." And so I come up churning, making butter, putting it in the butter molder, pat it out, turn it over, it's got a design on it. I did all of that.
LEWIS: So did you have cows?
McLAURIN: Yes, we had milk cows, and the older children, the older grandchildren, had to get up at 5:00 and go to the barn to milk before we went to school. And it wasn't easy going to school because you had about three, two, miles to walk, and it would be so cold we would see this crack ice which they call "rabbit ice," "jackrabbit ice," you know. It would be so cold. But we had to walk. There was no bus that was going to come and get us.
LEWIS: That was cracked ice that they called "rabbit ice"? [It is also known as frost flowers.]
McLAURIN: Yeah, cracked ice.
LEWIS: So you were on the outside of Charlotte, in the country?
McLAURIN: Yeah, we were in the country.
LEWIS: What kind of house? How many people were living there?
McLAURIN: Whew. Let's see, my two uncles, two of my aunts, and I think it was me, Lilly May, Paul, and James. It was four grandkids there and two of my uncles and two of my mother's sisters were still at home when I was there. And then later on I went with my mom, but I didn't like it so I came back. My grandmother passed when I was 13, so I didn't have any other choice but to go with my mom. But as long as my grandmother was living I didn't want to go anywhere.
LEWIS: Yeah. Do you still use any recipes you learned from her?
McLAURIN: Yeah, in my head, I don't have it on paper [laughs]. But my grandmother never measured. There wasn't a measuring cup in my house when I was coming up, I didn't know what a measuring cup was. Because they always … A pinch of this, and a pinch of that. And they would do this, but they would taste it. And if it was all right, they didn't have to add anything else to it, but if it wasn't they would add what they thought was needed. And I didn't know what a measuring cup was until I got in high school, ninth grade, that's when I saw my first measuring cup.
LEWIS: Did you take home economics?
McLAURIN: Yeah. Everybody had to take home economics. You either took cooking or sewing. You had a choice. And I did not like the sewing because my grandmother sewed a lot and when her legs would get tired, she would call us in and we had to sit down on the floor and pedal the machine. And I didn’t like it then, I guess it got on my nerves, because it went “nin-nin-nin-nin, nin-nin-nin.” And I didn’t like that. And I used to run when I heard her calling, I’d say, “Oh, she wants somebody to come in there, her legs are tired!” I used to run and hide so I wouldn’t have to do it.
And everybody had choices in the country. You had to go to the hen nest and get eggs. Some had to milk the cows, some had to feed the hogs. And in the evenings you had to go and get the cows and bring them up to the barn because they would be in the pasture. And then you had to shell corn for the chickens and throw it out there for the chickens. You know, so everybody had a choice.
And when you were a little girl, they would teach you how to make biscuits at an early age. My grandfather would always ask my grandmother, “Well, who’s going to make biscuits today?” And my grandmother would say, “Well, Hattie” or “Dorothy is making the biscuits today.” So my grandfather would say, “Clean out from under your nails,” and I guess today that’s why I don’t wear long nails. Because I couldn’t when I was young because my grandfather didn’t like for you to have long nails in cooking. When you made bread you had to clean out from under your nails, and they taught you at an early age to cook. And I remember standing on a block. I wasn’t tall enough to stand at the table to make the bread. I’d stand on a block, but I had to make it. I didn’t like the “squirky” part [wriggles hands as if squeezing dough], so my grandmother taught me how to use a fork. You weren’t getting away from her.
LEWIS: To mix the dough, you would use a fork.
McLAURIN: I didn’t like for it to squirt between my fingers.
LEWIS: You still feel that way?
McLAURIN: No. She said, “Well you are going to make this bread, no excuses. Here take this fork.” And it would work just as good. We didn’t even have a rolling pin at that time. My grandmother kept a bottle, a big soda bottle, that she would roll the dough out and also she took a glass and cut the biscuits out. We didn’t even have a biscuit cutter.
So that’s how I came up. Churning, cleaning. My grandmother and them made lye soap, and this is what we scrubbed the floors with. And we didn’t have dishing washing soap like we do today. We had oxen soap.
LEWIS: What kind of soap? Like oxen the animal?
McLAURIN: Yeah. Oxen. [Possibly Octagon Soap] This is what we used. It’s brown. They would cut it in half. And this is what you wash dishes with. And you had two pans, one pan you washed dishes, the second pan you had rinsing water in it, and you rinsed the dishes, and then you would dry. And put them away. And then every once in a while we used Camay soap, bath soap, and Palmolive, Dial. That’s the type of soap I came up on. And every once in a while my grandmother would make us take a bath in oxen soap because it was good for your skin. Believe it or not, you could have just taken a bath with your other soap, but when you used that oxen soap it would pull the oil. It would be like grease on the water. And she made us do that at least twice a year. And twice a year she would clean us out. You didn’t hear tell of colon cancer like you do today.
LEWIS: Oh, she would give you a laxative.
McLAURIN: She would give you a laxative. You didn’t have to be sick. You didn’t have to be sick to get a laxative. She would give it you. She would line us up. If it wasn’t sulphur black draught, it was Castoria. And if it wasn’t Castoria, it was castor oil. And I hate castor oil to today. This is why I don’t like black coffee to today, because my grandmother would pour castor oil into a cup and pour black coffee over it and stir it up. And we had to drink it. She would give us half an orange if she had it, and if she didn’t have it they always kept the big peppermint stick of candy, and she would break it up with the hammer and put it in a little bag and she would give you a little piece of that.
LEWIS: I’m surprised you didn’t run away when you knew that was going to happen.
McLAURIN: I ran away from a lot of things, but my grandmother, she wouldn’t tell us, she would just line you up in a line, like Mother Hubbard who had so many children. My grandmother would line us up and she knew every one of us and if one was missing, “Where’s so and so?” There wasn’t too much you could hide, but we had choices to do. We had to pick cotton, we had big gardens. Sweet potatoes, okra, corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash. You name it, we grew it.
LEWIS: And did you do the work in the cotton and the garden before school, after school, weekends?
McLAURIN: Sometimes you worked after you got out of school. You go in the field to pick cotton, and after the cotton time was over with, a certain time of year … There was a time and season for everything. In the fall we knew we were going to have to get out there and pick sweet potatoes because we had a big field of them. And we had to pick them up and bring them to the pump and wash them. And then later on, when they get dry enough, my grandfather would dig a hole in the ground and he would put straw in that hole and cotton seeds and then he would put the potatoes on a sack and cover them up and those potatoes would stay there for good.
LEWIS: They would?
McLAURIN: They would. And then in November, we knew … We didn’t have anything to do with them killing hogs, but we had to prepare to help clean chitlins. We had to do that because we didn’t have to kill the hogs. My uncle and my grandfather and them killed the hogs, but my grandmother and my mother and them, the neighbors, they were prepared in the kitchen to grind to make the sausage. They would grind it up and they would make liver pudding. A lot of people called it scrapple. We called it liver pudding or liver mush. So they made that. And when they made the sausage, they would take the small chitlins … That’s how come we had to wash the big ones and the small ones because they would pack sausage in the small intestines, which is chitlins. They would pack them in the small ones. That’s why you see that little film on sausage today. What do you think it is?
LEWIS: And you could keep that for a long time?
McLaurin. Yeah, they would hang it up in the smokehouse.
LEWIS: What happened to the big chitlins?
McLAURIN: We ate them. They cooked them.
LEWIS: They wouldn’t keep would they?
McLAURIN: No. You had to cook them. You cleaned them real good and then you cooked them. And I still love them. But a lot of people won’t eat them, but I love them. And we would have chitlins, potato salad, and collard greens. That was a dynamite dish. And cornbread.
LEWIS: Well I know your collard greens!
McLaurin. Yeah. And we had tenderloin. The first day they’d kill a hog, my grandmother would fry tenderloin and make biscuits. And then they would take the liver and make the liver mush. We call it liver mush or liver pudding. Up here they call it scrapple.
LEWIS: They have a lot of it. I had it when I was working on Capitol Hill.
McLAURIN: Uh huh. And so I still eat it but it’s nothing like what my grandmother and them made. So you always had something to do in the country. May, June you had what we call June peas. We raised those. We had to go to the garden and pick them and sit on the porch and shell those sweet peas. They call them sweet peas. But at home where I come from we call them June peas because they were ripe in your garden in June.
LEWIS: So when did you plant them?
McLAURIN: My grandmother would plant them about …. I think it was the middle part of April because they always were ready in June. And the corn was ready in June. We called it “rochenelles” at home.
LEWIS: How do you spell that?
McLAURIN: I’m bad about spelling Elizabeth. It’s like corn, that you boil, fresh corn. We used to call it “rochenelles” in North Carolina. You just cut it off the cob and you fry it in the frying pan or you stew it. [Elsewhere in North Carolina at that time it was called “roasting ear” corn.]
LEWIS: So that was the recipe?
McLAURIN: That’s the way you could cook it. And then sometimes we would make a corn pudding. Virginia is well known for corn pudding, but I was eating it and didn’t know nothing about Virginia [laughs]. They claim that corn pudding comes from Virginia, but my mother and them were making corn pudding when I was a little girl.
LEWIS: Virginia claims Brunswick Stew, too, but did you grow up with Brunswick Stew?
LEWIS: I think when it started originally it had squirrel in it.
McLAURIN: Oh, no, we ate squirrel, but grandmother would parboil it and then she would fry some just like she did a rabbit. Most of when it came down to stew we ate beef stew and chicken dumplings, stuff like that. But my grandfather was the type of man that he had to have something sweet seven days a week, so I think my grandmother just stirred up something together and she would just name it herself, I think, because she made Lassy bread, which some people call sweet bread.
LEWIS: Did it have molasses in it?
McLAURIN: Uh huh, it was made with molasses. A lot of molasses would turn into sugar, so my grandmother would get those molasses and just add the egg, and flavor, and flour to it, and a little bit of baking powder. She didn’t have to use any sugar because the molasses had turned into sugar. And see they made molasses. We had a field with sugar cane in it, and they would make the molasses from the sugar cane.
LEWIS: And did you sell it too?
McLAURIN: Yeah, my granddaddy sold some. He made the dark and the light. Made two kinds. And they killed hogs, I come up on ham biscuits, sausage biscuits.
McLAURIN: We had crackling bread and I still like crackling bread. I come up on that. And they canned tomatoes and corn and okra together. And we small children had to wash the jars, mason jars. We had to wash jars and they would open that up in the winter and just buy some stew beef or chicken and make soup because you had your tomatoes and all of that. So they’d take the hulls from the apples and they would make apple jelly.
LEWIS: What about dried apples?
McLAURIN: Dried apples, we had fried apple pies, I still can make them. We had fried apple pies from the dried apples. Then we had pear preserves, which I love today. My grandmother and my mother and them made pear preserves, strawberry preserves, blackberry, and apple jelly. And peach. Get the soft peach and make peach preserves. So we didn’t buy that. They made it. And all types of cakes. And now you make a cake you got to practically put it in the refrigerator because it’ll go bad. And I remember when a holiday was coming up my grandmother and them would go in the kitchen and they would cook six or seven cakes , seven or eight coconut pies, sweet potato pies, and it would last and they didn’t even have a refrigerator, they had an ice box.
LEWIS: What do you think the difference is?
McLAURIN: What man is doing with of these chemicals that they are putting in the food. Because you didn’t have to put white potatoes and sweet potatoes in the refrigerator then. You put them in a box and kept them on the porch where it was cool. Sure, you’d lose maybe a couple because they would sprout. But not that bad. You put potatoes and stuff in the refrigerator now and you go in there to get one and it’s sprouting or it’s soft. That’s because of what man is doing to the vegetables, your medicine, your water, and everything. All that toxin. Food tastes different.
LEWIS: I’ve heard you say that.
McLAURIN: It tastes different. It doesn’t taste like it used to taste. Bacon is not like it used to be. Eggs. There is a difference in eggs. Milk. I don’t even call it milk because it’s not like it used to be. Not even buttermilk.
LEWIS: I’ve heard you complain about flour too.
McLAURIN: Yeah, flour is different too. So it’s what man is doing to it and every time that they tell you that they are growing hamburger in a lab and when they bring it to the store you are not going to know, and the government is going to let them do that, that’s wrong. I see hamburgers in the store, hamburger meat, saying where the cow only ate grass. It doesn’t even look like hamburger. It looks dark-looking. Hamburger is not supposed to be dark. So very seldom I buy hamburger. If I buy it, I get a small roast and have it ground. Because now you just don’t know what you are getting and stuff doesn’t stay long. You keep bread out, the third or fourth day it’s gone. It’s molding. Bananas, you can buy them green and it doesn’t take but two days before they are yellow. So why is that? And then they tell you before you eat banana, before you break the skin, rinse the banana off and pat it dry. That’s telling you they’ve got chemicals on it.
But I’ve seen a lot and I grew up fast. I grew up, didn’t have anything too much, but I had my life. Didn’t have a lot of education, but I had wisdom and knowledge.
McLAURIN: And I thank God for that because it brought me a long way. And I met nice people and they helped me. I went to school out there in Georgetown and got trained for LPN.
LEWIS: Let’s talk about that. How old were you when you came to DC?
McLAURIN: Let’s see, I came here in ’56, August of ’56, and I’m 82 now, so just count that up.
LEWIS: I will. And what made you pick Washington?
McLAURIN: I had an aunt here. My dad’s sister at that time was here. And my marriage wasn’t good, so I needed to get away. So I came to DC.
LEWIS: And you had children with you then.
McLAURIN: Yes. I was here for about three days and I had a job. My first job was out there in Friendship Heights at a restaurant and I worked there for a while. And then I left there and I got a job, I think it was Catholic University, and I worked there for a while. And then I left because Georgetown had a good opening and it was suiting me with the time for the schedule for my boys. So I went to Georgetown, and after I was there for a while they came around and said if anybody wanted to go to school or take up a trade, they would send them. But the only catch was that if you went and took up something, you still had to work there. You couldn’t leave and say, “Well, GW is paying more so I’m going to go there.” You couldn’t. You had to stay there at least four years. Because of what you’re taking up. And I did that.
LEWIS: So you studied to be an LPN [Licensed Practical Nurse]?
McLAURIN: Yeah. And some states, they said at the time that LPNs could give medicine, but in DC and here in Maryland you weren’t allowed. All you did was made the bed and give them a bath, you know, and take them if you had to go to x-ray and whatever. That’s what you did.
LEWIS: Did you like that?
McLaurin. Yes! And then I got transferred to the ward, to the mother’s ward, you know when they come in to have their babies. So that’s how I got started.
LEWIS: And that’s how you met the Barbanels?
McLAURIN: That’s how I met the Barbanels. She was my first case.
LEWIS: And you were in Georgetown?
McLAURIN: I was in Georgetown, but I had put all my time in, and she said to me, she said, “You are such a nice person, even when you don’t have …” She stayed in the hospital a long time. I think she stayed in the hospital about two weeks or three because she had a complication. That was her first child, and she had complications. And so, even if I didn’t have her that morning, I would still poke my head in the door and say, “How you feel today?” And if she said, “Aw, I just didn’t have a good night,” I would come on in and fluff up her pillows and tell her, “You’re going to be all right.” I said, “This is your first child and sometimes we have a problem but don’t concentrate on it, just say ‘I’m getting better.’” And so then sometimes I would have her or if I didn’t have somebody else I always would stop in when it was almost time for me to go home, or sometimes when I come in the morning, I would go in there and speak to her, and sometimes I would say, “Oh, you are up today,” and “Do you want anything, could I go down to the gift shop to get you something?” And she would say, “Oh, I would appreciate that. So much.” And I would go down to the gift shop and get what she wanted.
LEWIS: And they lived on the Hill?
McLAURIN: No. She lived in Maryland, but her dad had a pharmacy in Chevy Chase. But she lived in Maryland, in Kensington.
LEWIS: So you worked for them for …
McLAURIN: For both of her kids. I went to her.
LEWIS: And where did you live at that time?
McLAURIN: Where did I live? When I first started with her I was on Columbia Road NW.
LEWIS: And how did you get to Capitol Hill?
McLAURIN: Well, after the riot came through. The riot in ‘68, when they had the burning going on. I had to get a place. So my first place was on 1641 West Virginia Avenue NE, right across from Gallaudet College. But I was on West Virginia Avenue.
LEWIS: Why did the riot make you move?
McLAURIN: Because they burned and destroyed so much.
LEWIS: In your neighborhood?
McLAURIN: Yeah, 14th Street had nice stores, and I lived right there at 14th and Columbia Road with my aunt. And so they tore up everything. And Seventh Street, they burned on Seventh Street. They burned on H Street NE. But they did not go in Georgetown, I could not figure that out. They didn’t go there in Georgetown or Silver Spring.
LEWIS: Did you see the burning?
McLAURIN: Could I see it? Yeah! Everybody had to be quarantined. Even when I was going to work I had to show an ID and had to show proof that I lived where I said I lived.
LEWIS: Oh, really?
McLAURIN: Because the National Guard was on the streets because they were burning and looting. You’d see kids rolling down the street with washing machines at first. And so that’s how bad it was. They had the National Guard out. And if you worked cross town or in Silver Spring, you had to show the ID.
LEWIS: How long did that last? For weeks?
McLAURIN: That lasted maybe about two to three weeks. Security guards.
LEWIS: Were you scared?
McLAURIN: Yes. I was very scared and very upset to see how they did things like that.
LEWIS: You mean the people who were rioting?
McLAURIN: The people who did the rioting. I mean, young people and some old people was out there doing it. Burning up the stores, looting, bringing out furniture, whatever they could get their hands on. They had some nice stores on 14th Street and some nice stores on H Street. They had a store on H Street called Gal. Nice clothes in there.
LEWIS: Gal, G-A-L.
McLAURIN: Uh huh. And of course they had Copycat, that was okay, but … Then they had the 5 and 10 [cent store] and all of that. And they burned up everything. They had clubs on H Street, you know little bars, but they did all of that. All of that. They burned up that.
LEWIS: And at the same time, you must have had some feeling of sympathy for them, part of the anger was that Martin Luther King had been killed.
McLAURIN: Yeah, but Martin Luther King did a lot for us. It didn’t matter about your skin tone. He fought for the garbage people, you know, all of that. He stood for something. And he did a lot. But you see that’s what hurt. He did a lot like the Kennedys, see, and they didn’t want to see that happen. And I always do believe that the Klansmen were involved, because they burned crosses in Medgar Evers’ yard and all of that stuff. So I always thought that was a part of that. But I still say our people should not have gone out there and looted because Martin Luther King wasn’t about that. He wasn’t about that. So that wasn’t going to bring him back. You stick to what he stood for. And I still say that today. Stand up and do the right thing, even if it hurts you, if it knocks you down to your knees, get up. Lace your boots up. Stand up again.
LEWIS: That’s been your life. You have done it, I have seen you do that.
McLAURIN: Yeah. That’s how I was brought up. And my grandmother always told us, “If you are right, I will go to hell for you. But if you are wrong, I’m not going to stand up for you.” And that’s what she meant. And I tried to tell people. I talk to young people all the time and I used to tell them and still do, “You can be anything you want to be, you’ve got to set your mind to it.” I say, “Don’t let nobody pull you down, you can go down bad yourself. You let somebody pull you up. Go for it, reach for the stars, you know. You can be what you want to be, you can be another Obama if you want to.” I say, “But don’t go out here stealing and burning up people’s stuff, destroying people’s stuff.”
I see these young people stealing people’s packages off the porch and stuff. “Ya’ll don’t need to do that,” I say, “What you need to do is get a J-O-B, and it doesn’t matter about the little bit of money.” I say, “When I was coming up, we worked in the field, and the man would give my grandfather the money to him, we didn’t even get no money.” We got a little allowance, maybe a quarter or fifty cents. We had to give our money to the parents. And I say, “Ya’ll don’t want to start on a job because maybe they’re not paying enough, but remember you got to climb the ladder first. You might have to start out little, but you need to wait ’til you can climb that ladder, and then big bucks will come.” I say, “All these little stores I remember, there wasn’t nothing but blacks in McDonald’s and Popeye’s and all of that stuff. Now what do you see?”
LEWIS: You mean working there?
McLAURIN: Working. And then the 5 and 10 cents store, when they had an eating place. They protested in Greensboro, North Carolina. We couldn’t even go in there to eat. We could stand down on the end and order the food and take with us. We couldn’t even come in the front door. When we’d go to a place, we had to come in the back or on the side.
LEWIS: Now was that true in Washington too?
McLAURIN: Some places here in Washington, just like I say.
LEWIS: How about Capitol Hill?
McLAURIN: Capitol Hill, you know, was better because when I first came here all over there by Eastern Market and Seventh Street and all down Seventh Street, Eighth Street, it was houses, and mostly was blacks. Even down there where Arthur Capper Senior Building was, that was the projects. That was rough. I wouldn’t even go down there. It was rough, because it was the projects.
LEWIS: And that what years are you talking about now? The 60s?
McLAURIN: Back in the 60s, that was the projects over there where Arthur Capper Senior was building all them townhouses, that was the projects.
LEWIS: When you were living on West Virginia did you feel safe there?
McLAURIN: Yeah, because it was pretty nice, and I rented from B.F. Saul. And when you rent from B.F. Saul or Fred A. Smith, you had to have a good reference, because they didn’t let anybody come in on their property.
LEWIS: Are these owners?
McLAURIN: Yeah, they are all [property managers]. They were buildings. And I rented from B. F. Saul. My cousin carried me because he was renting from him. He said, “Young lady, do you have a job?” I said, “Yes, I do.” And he said, “If I let you have this apartment, I want you to treat it as if was yours.” I said, “You won’t have no problem out of me.” And he said, “Okay. You’ve got children, right?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “I don’t want to see no mark on that unit where you stay at.” I said, “Oh, no, I don’t play like that.” I rented from him until when I moved from West Virginia Avenue to Edgewood Street, right off of [Brentwood Road and Rhode Island Avenue] because I needed a bigger space.
LEWIS: And what job were you doing then?
McLAURIN: Still taking care of babies.
LEWIS: But you still weren’t on Capitol Hill at that point?
McLAURIN: Yeah, I had quite a few jobs on Capitol Hill. But I had jobs all the way up into Germantown because I went home with the mothers, some were in Holy Cross and some were at Washington Hospital Center.
LEWIS: So these were short term baby jobs.
McLAURIN: Yeah. Short term.
LEWIS: So what did you do after that?
McLAURIN: Well, I started getting sick, so then after that I started back here on the Hill and I stayed on the Hill. I wasn’t going again with a family, maybe they might want me two weeks or three weeks, a month sometimes, and then sometimes I would double back while I’m waiting on a baby to come. I would double back so they could go to a bed and breakfast, you know, for the weekend just to get away, to get a break from the kid. If I didn’t have a case. And then, the kids started growing up, and for most of my jobs the [mothers] didn’t work.
LEWIS: So they didn’t need you for long-term babysitting.
McLAURIN: A lot of them were Jewish. I had an experience with the rabbi that came out to do the circumcision of the baby, and so I had to assist him. I would hold the bottle in the baby’s mouth while he’d do it. He’d do it so quick that the baby just let out one “Yah!” and that was it. But after that, I would take the baby upstairs and I wouldn’t let nobody come in the room. Only the parents. For two days I did that, because you know he’s in pain, and the rabbi came back the second day to check, to see was everything … And I had to take care of that. Keep the gauze and Neosporin on there and everything. That was a great experience for me.
LEWIS: You did a lot of those.
McLAURIN: Yeah, and they had the ceremony, and they had the grandparents, the godparents, and the mother and father, and they would pour wine in this cup and they would take a new Birdseye diaper and dip it in the cup …
LEWIS: What kind of diaper?
McLAURIN: The white diapers, the cloth diapers. We used to call them “Virdeye.”
LEWIS: “Virdeye” with a V?
McLAURIN: Yeah. So after they do the ceremony—I guess it was offering the baby to God, I didn’t understand that—but they would do a little song and hold their hands up there, they had their caps on, and the mother and father would take a sip out of the same cup first and then it was passed down to both grandparents if they were there and then after that it was passed down to the godparents. And from the godparents, back to the rabbi and the rabbi would be the last one. And then they would take the end of the new diaper and put it in that cup and let the baby suck on it. It’s very nice. And I even liked the food because they had chopped livers and I can’t think of the name of the other one, but they had chopped liver and they had the beef tongue, but I wouldn’t eat that because it was a cow tongue. But they had the apple something, it’s very good. But I learned a lot from that and I had a picture of me assisting the rabbi, but it got burnt up.
LEWIS: Well, I want to talk about that fire, but let’s first talk about when you moved to Capitol Hill and when you started taking care of babies for more long-term.
McLAURIN: Well, I moved to 208 Massachusetts Avenue from Edgewood. Edgewood started getting rough. Drugs came along, so I didn’t want my boys around that, so I moved over here on Mass Avenue to 208 Massachusetts Avenue NE
LEWIS: And that was when, in the 70s or the 80s?
McLAURIN: That was in the 70s. And I was in Grubbs Pharmacy one day, and there was a lady in there [who] needed a sitter. So she was asking Jeanette did she know anyone, could she put a little note in the store. So Jeanette said, “Well, I’ll have to ask Ed. It’s fine with me, but let me ask Ed.” So I came in at that time and I spoke to Jeanette, and she said, “Hattie, give me a minute, everything is ready for you.”
So the lady said, “Well I sure hope I find someone nice, because this will be my first time leaving my child.” And I was looking, so I said, “Are you looking for someone to work for you?” And she said, “Yeah. Do you know someone?” So I said, “No, but I might could help you.” She said, “You can?” I said, “Well, what’s your hours and how many days?” So she said, “Four day.” So I said, “Well, what’s the day that you’re off?” She said Mondays. That was down my alley, because most of my appointments going to the doctor was on Mondays. And so we stood there and talked and then she told me where she lived, and she was on Seventh Street NE. And so it worked out good, so she hired me. But she called the Barbanels.
LEWIS: For a reference.
McLAURIN: Uh huh. She called the Barbanels, she called the Atleys, because I had worked for the Atleys. The Barbanels, the Fitchues [sp?]. Bryan Fitchue was the cameraman for Channel 9. He would put the cameras on when they were telling the news, like J.C. Hayward. Max Robinson, Gordon Peterson. See they knew me. Gordon Peterson was one of Bryan Fitchue’s … he was the godfather. Lou Allen. I went to his niece when she had her baby. I didn’t work for him, but I went to them, worked for the family.
So she checked those and she said, “Oh, my god, yeah, you come work for me!” She said, “You’ve got good references!” I said, “Well I treat your children just like they was mine. And I will protect them with all of my might when I have them because I’m in charge. They belongs to me.” But I said, “But I tell you one thing now. I’m going to tell you this now. I’m not a person that likes to stay in the house. It’s got to be real, real cold and ice out there and I don’t want to fall. I’m scared of ice.” I said, “But if it’s nice, I’m gone.” I said, “So is it alright if I [take the baby outside a lot]?” She said, “Oh, I would love that.” I said, “Now, I will let you know, if you want me to call you, I’ll let you know where we’ll be going.” I said, “But day by day I don’t know where I’m going to wind up.” I said, “Because I hit every park.”
LEWIS: And you knew a lot of nannies in the neighborhood.
McLAURIN: Yes, I knew a lot. I knew the Carvels’ nanny, and the Carvels stayed on Fifth Street, right off East Capitol. And we used to go there in the Carvels’ backyard, and he would order pizza for us, for all the girls that was there, which everybody didn’t come. And so, everybody in the neighborhood—Kitty, and Lonnie, Sarah—everybody would come up to me and say, “What’s going on today or tomorrow?” I said, “Don’t ya’ll know?” I started them going to the library right there on Seventh Street because they would have Story Time there. And when it would get cold … Eastern Market, now, they let the girls have the room where there’s nothing in there.
LEWIS: The North Hall.
McLAURIN: The North Hall. But when I was out there, we couldn’t come in the there.
LEWIS: I know.
McLAURIN: They wouldn’t let us. But the Y opened their door and let us come in there.
LEWIS: The Y ….
McLAURIN: Next to Eastern Market.
LEWIS: You mean the pool?
McLAURIN: The pool. Ain’t that the Y?
LEWIS: I don’t know if that was the Y or not. [Now the Rumsey Aquatic Center]
McLAURIN: There’s a pool inside. They let us come in there. And that was because Eleanor Holmes Norton went to them, because she was out there in the Turtle Park along with us.
LEWIS: Oh, because she had her babies then.
McLAURIN: She had her son. And see, she went to school at night and she kept her own children during the day. Her husband worked during the day and she kept the children. And he kept the children while she went to school at night.
LEWIS: And you knew her pretty well.
McLAURIN: I knew Eleanor well, even now if she sees me, [she says], “Well hi, Hattie, how are you doing?” “Fine.”
LEWIS: And so did you all have certain parks you went to at certain times of the day?
McLAURIN: Yeah. If I went to Turtle Park in the morning and I go back in the evening, I’d go to Stanton Park. Or if I didn’t go to Stanton Park, I went to Lincoln. And if I didn’t go there, I would come over here at Fourth by St Peter’s School. We used to call that the Flower Park because it had a lot of flowers in it. We used to call that the Flower Park. And then sometimes if it was too cool or we got tired of seeing the same old scenery, we’d go up to Union Station and get the MARC train and ride over to Baltimore and come back on the train. And TomTom, he’d get excited about that. And we’d ride on the train and turn around and come right back, just to see the ball stadium over there. That’s all we saw. And we’d come right back. When the train come back, we’d be on the same train we went over on.
LEWIS: And didn’t you tell me that there used to be puppet shows at the Folger?
McLAURIN: Oh, yeah. I found out they had puppet shows at the Folger, and the next big building from the puppet shows … Is that the Library of Congress? Yeah, they used to have a room in there. And the kids would be so excited. And then the day when the circus came into town, we would line up East Capitol for the kids to see the elephants and stuff, you know. And all of that. I would find stuff to do. And we would go to the library there on Seventh Street and we would stroll and go in the drugstores or the stores or whatever, weren’t too many stores …
LEWIS: Eastern Market?
McLAURIN: Eastern Market, we would go in there, and I would get the kids some chicken so I could stew it down, because [for] most of the babies I was slipping and feeding them [laughs] because they got so they didn’t like the baby food no how. They’d spit it out. So I would laugh because they’d know I would bring stuff from home sometimes and give it to them and so I just enjoyed every moment, and if I didn’t have problems with old Arthur [arthritis] now, I think I’d still be out there.
LEWIS: I think you would too. Now, were most of the babysitters African American in those early days?
LEWIS: Have you noticed a change?
McLAURIN: Yeah, I’ve noticed it quite a bit. You don’t see African American people pushing babies now. It’s mostly Spanish, you know. And I had a lot of families would tell me they would rather have an African American person taking care of their kids because the kids could understand their language more so than Spanish. I said, but now you see Spanish women with two and three babies, or you see men pushing babies now. That wasn’t out there when I was.
LEWIS: You mean men sitters?
McLAURIN: Men sitters are out here. Yeah. And they can go into North Hall and sit.
LEWIS: Now they can, yeah.
McLAURIN: Now they can, but we couldn’t. They wouldn’t let us.
LEWIS: And you probably saw a lot more mothers in the park in the old days.
McLAURIN: I did. I saw a lot of young mothers that didn’t have a babysitter no more than when they go out sometimes. I met Anna’s mother in the park at the time, and I went and kept Anna for her, and then later on she had me [full time] too. And then I met a lady on the Hill, her and her daughter were on their way to Grubbs. And I said, “Oh my god, what are you feeding her, I would love to take care of that baby!” And that was Mrs. Elizabeth Abernethy [the interviewer] and I babysat many years for her daughter and her son. They still are my babies today.
LEWIS: Well you are part of our family today.
McLAURIN: Yeah, I carried kids all the time, everywhere. And sometime [they] went home with me a couple times and spent the night, and so I had Anna spend the night with me. I worked for Anna and them and I worked for Eliza, and I worked for Kitty on the Hill, right there on Constitution Avenue. And Eliza and them lived on Sixth Street NE, and I wasn’t worried about my references. They called Mrs. Abernethy to get references [laughs] and they called Jill Ireland, who is back in Portland, Oregon, now. I had her son. They had an office on Second Street NE, over there by Union Station, but they were in the business for Nike tennis shoes. And most all of my families are away, some of them I don’t hear from them. I don’t know where they are. I had families up in Germantown, Atlanta, I don’t hear from them. New York, Pittsburgh. I don’t hear from them. But I still hear from TomTom, Janie, Mattie, Zoey, and Mary, Tess, Noah. I hear from them.
LEWIS: Well, you’ve got a lot of devoted followers, no question about it. Before we move on, I forgot to ask you. You told me one time you could buy live chickens near Capitol Hill for your dinner. Tell me about that.
McLAURIN: You could go to Fifth and K Streets NW and you could go in there and pick out a chicken and they had all kinds of chickens. They had [black and white] Game, Rhode Island Red, they had the one that looked like a guinea. They had white, and they had tan. And you would say, “Well, I want one of those.” They would get the chicken for you, kill it, and clean it, and you’d take it home and you’d finish cleaning it. Those was the best chickens, and you could get the eggs. You could get brown eggs or white eggs, and they were fresh. And right ’til today where the live market was to get chickens it’s the Safeway, and an apartment building is there. But that used to be where you could come and get live chickens.
LEWIS: What year was that?
McLAURIN: That was in the late 60s and the 70s. You could go and get live chickens and you could go to O Street Market, which is still standing [at 1400 Seventh Street NW], but it’s no longer a market. They can’t tear it down because it’s a historic place. And Florida Avenue Market [at 1260 Fourth Street NE] mostly was the big turnover because you could get everything there. You couldn’t get live chickens, but you could get everything there. You could get whatever you wanted—greens, corn, beef, pork chops, you name it. Cracklings. You got all of that at Florida Avenue Market. But when it caught on fire and they rebuilt it, it’s the Union Market. They only have one meat counter in there and it’s very expensive.
LEWIS: Yeah, it is. I’m trying to think of what other historic events you might have seen during your time on Capitol Hill.
McLAURIN: Oh, my god. They had a place called Howard’s Theater. A lot of people went there because they brought a lot of singing there like James Brown, Jackie Wilson, B.B. King, all of those types of people.
LEWIS: Was this on Capitol Hill?
McLAURIN: On Florida Avenue, Capitol Hill goes up there too you know. [She is referring to Howard Theater, 620 T Street NW] So it’s still Ward 6. So [the riots] messed up Howard Theater, so they remodeled it and everything so it’s open again. But they had a restaurant on Seventh Street called Key’s, likes your keys, K-E-Y. You had to be dressed to go in there. You didn’t go in there just any kind of way.
LEWIS: Seventh and Florida?
McLAURIN: That was at Seventh and before you get to New York Avenue. And then they had Florida Avenue Grill. It’s still open, but it’s not like it used to be. And you had WUST was a [gospel music venue and radio station located at 1120 U St Street NW and 815 V Street NW, current site of 9:30 Club], that’s where a lot of gospel groups had programs there. It’s Howard University done built all around it. It’s not a radio station anymore. But that was popular. And before they built Howard University, that was houses there.
LEWIS: Was there ever any place right on Capitol Hill that was a place you would go to for fun?
McLAURIN: Yeah, you had a place on H Street called 821. That was a nice club. But then they had another one on H Street called Koko. I didn’t like Koko.
LEWIS: Why not?
McLAURIN: Too rough. And I didn’t never go in there, but it was rough. And then they had Chung King right there at Ninth and H. That was nice to go. You could eat Chinese food, you could dance, you could play the jukebox. So that was very nice. And then you had Martha’s Table at Seventh and Rhode Island Avenue. A place called Martha’s Table at Seventh and Rhode Island Avenue. That as nice.
LEWIS: Now, that’s the name for a….
McLAURIN: I ain’t talking about Martha’s Table where you go and help the homeless. That’s on 14th Street.
LEWIS: Okay, I got it.
McLAURIN: And at that time, it was safe, because you could get out of a club at two o’clock in the morning and nobody bothered you, you could walk home.
LEWIS: Did you ever do hand dancing?
McLAURIN: Oh yeah, that’s what I come up on, but now today that’s called hand dancing, in my day it was called swing. And the Madison and the Stroll, those was my days. And they just renamed it, because of all these platform shoes. I wore them when I was a young girl. But now you pay a whole lot of money for them old big-heeled shoes. And they hand danced, and all of that. That was the swing to us. I did all of that. So when they started calling hand dancing, it was easy for me. I taught my daughter-in-law. She was going to go to class for that. I said, “I can teach you that!” And I taught her, too. I said, “That ain’t nothing but ya’ll changed it. It ain’t nothing but swing dance. We was doing this when ya’ll weren’t even here.” So I taught her.
LEWIS: And did you go to church on the Hill?
McLAURIN: My church was farther up in Northwest called Carolina Missionary Baptist Church. It was up there at 77 Morton Street NW. That was near Sherman and Georgia Avenue.
LEWIS: And you sang in the choir.
McLAURIN: I sung in the choir. I ushered. I helped the missionary society. As a matter of fact, I sung in two choirs, the Women’s Gospel Chorus and the Joylands. And I ushered.
LEWIS: Tell me what an usher does.
McLAURIN: An usher is the first person that you see when you enter the sanctuary.
LEWIS: They’re dressed in white, aren’t they?
McLAURIN: They’re dressed in white and they have a badge on and they will, if you get there kind of late, they would take you down to seat you or they would bring down the pans for the offering. And so that’s what an usher does, it’s to make people welcome. And if they can’t find a seat you might would say, “Well, sit right here,” and I would go and look down and see do I see one closer down, come back and get you and escort you down there.
LEWIS: I also want to talk about the fire, but first I want to ask you about shopping. You had told me about some of your experiences trying to look at hats.
McLAURIN: Shopping? You mean clothes?
LEWIS: Well, you were talking about going to Garfinkel’s [Department Store].
McLAURIN: Oh yeah. I went with the Barbanels to Garfinkel’s. She was going to a wedding so she was getting her dress from there. And I went with her because we had her oldest child.
LEWIS: This is the 70s?
McLAURIN: The 70s, yes. And I went with her in there and I saw this hat. I said, “Oh my god, that’s a beautiful hat!” Because I’m a hat girl. And I went over to look at the hat and I said, “Oh my god, I can’t afford this!”
And I just kind of was raising it towards looking in the mirror, raising the hat to see what it looked like. I wasn’t going to try it on because I didn’t have that type of money. That hat was 200 and some dollars! And so the lady came up, she said, “No, you cannot try that on!” I said, “Ma’am, I’m not going try the hat on.” I said, “But you should be able to try it on to see how you look in it.” She said, “Well, ya’ll have grease in your hair, so don’t try it on.”
I put the hat back down and just kind of moved off the way. So then here come another lady, tried the same hat on and bought it. But she didn’t tell her that she couldn’t try the hat on.
LEWIS: She was white.
McLAURIN: She was white. But she told me that “You cannot try the hat on because ya’ll have grease in your hair.” And you didn’t see too many black people working in Garfinkel’s. If they was in there, they was upstairs to wrap gifts. Not as a cashier. And Woodie’s [Woodward and Lothrop Department Store] did the same thing. You didn’t see too many black people being cashiers until later on. They had a black lady to take you up the floors on the elevator but they didn’t have too many black people. They worked but they was in the personnel room where you didn’t see them, maybe putting clothes out, tagging clothes, but what I’m saying [is] you didn’t see too many of them being a cashier ’til later on. And then they had them.
Macy’s used to be Hecht’s, and when I came here Hecht’s was at Seventh and E [NW]. Not where they are at now downtown. They are at 13th and G. But when I first come Hecht’s was at Seventh and E. And they had a 5 and 10 cent store right there at Seventh and E, and then they had Kann’s Department Store on Seventh Street. Which was a good store.
LEWIS: Did you go to the Woolworth’s we used to have near Eastern Market? [It was a Kresge’s at the corner of Seventh Street and Pennsylvania SE and redeveloped in the 1990s.]
McLAURIN: I went in that Safeway, and if I had to get stuff from the Safeway I’d go in there first because I always had my little cart. I would go in the Safeway to get what I need and then I would go in Eastern Market last because I’m on my way home. I would go in Eastern Market and get my chicken wings or chicken from Melvin or whatever. I had certain stands that I went to. And so I would go in there and get my chicken wings, turkey wings, eggs, and then I went to Jose and I got my sausage and my bacon.
LEWIS: Do you remember the Woolworth’s or the Kresge’s? What was it, the dime store around the corner from Eastern Market?
McLAURIN: Yeah! Down there at Seventh and Pennsylvania Avenue. I went in there many times and bought material, thread …
LEWIS: Did they have a lunch counter?
LEWIS: Oh they did?
McLAURIN: You know the guy on the corner by the drugstore that sells stuff? In front of the drugstore, CVS? That’s how he met his wife, Ruby’s daughter. She worked in there and she worked with the cafeteria, the food counter. And he met Ruby’s daughter and he married her. And then after she got married, she began working on the Hill. Her mother was already working on the Hill. Me and Ruby was just like that [close friends]. And then Hazel, I met Hazel.
LEWIS: And Dottie, too, who had the shop [Dottie’s, a women’s clothing store on Seventh Street SE across from Eastern Market].
McLAURIN: And Dottie. A lot of people thought Dottie was white. A lot of the sitters. “I ain’t going in the there, she’s white. She don’t look like she wants to be bothered.” I said, “Honey, Dottie ain’t white. Dottie’s such a nice person.”
LEWIS: Yeah, she was.
McLAURIN: I said, “Regardless if she is white, she’s such a nice person.” So I talked to Lonnie and Kitty, started them in Dottie’s. And they went in there ’til Dottie got burnt out. And I took my babies in there, all of my kids. Dottie knew all of my kids. Miss Louise [who sold vegetables outside at Eastern Market] that used to sit outside, she loved Janie. She used to say, “What in the world is ya’ll feeding that baby?” [laughter] I said, “Miss Louise, she eats just about everything!” She said, “Lord have mercy!] I said, “You know, babies when they’re breastfed, they’re healthy. They’re more healthy than a bottle baby.” You know? And we would laugh about that. She would give me tomatoes sometimes for Janie because Janie loved tomatoes, you’d cut them up and put them on her little tray. She’d pick them up so fast.
LEWIS: I know. Now let’s talk about … You moved from 208 Massachusetts over to …
McLAURIN: 6201/2 I Street SE.
LEWIS: Okay. And you stayed there for a few years.
McLAURIN: I stayed there ten years.
LEWIS: Okay. And, you were lucky, you won a lottery?
McLAURIN: Yeah, I won the lottery. Because when the man sold our building where we was at 208 [Massachusetts NE] we had a certain time to be out, and I would go whenever I could looking for a place because they weren’t trying to help us. They would put a list up in the lobby and I went and checked out a couple, and I wouldn’t stay there if they gave it to me for a penny. Because it was just run down like that. One of them was over there on Angel Place SE. I wouldn’t go across the bridge. And because I knew the areas like Deanwood. When I was out there to look for apartments after this last fire, I said, “Uh uh. I ain’t coming to Deanwood, because Deanwood always have been a rough area, and it’s very heavy in drugs.”
So anyway, I was told that they were building some new places down there on Seventh and I [Streets SE] and all that was part of the projects too. So I walked down there and I asked the young lady and she said, “Well, we don’t have nothing right now. A lot of times people put in and they might have bad credit or something and they don’t get it. I’ll take your name and everything and your phone number. What about your cell?” I said,” I don’t have a cell.” She said, “You can be reached here?” And I said, “Yeah, I can be reached at this number. This is the only phone I have.” And she said, “How long have you been in the District?” And I told her. And she said, “Well, okay. If something comes up or somebody’s didn’t go through, we will call you.”
So they never did call. I would walk down there sometimes. I would walk down there on Saturdays because I knew they would be open. I’d walk down there on Saturdays. This particular Saturday I went down there and she said, “Miss McLaurin, we still don’t have anything. But we are having a drawing.” I said, “A drawing?” She said, “Yeah. We are going to raffle off a place. All you got to do is sign up. You might be lucky and you might not.” So I said, “Okay, I got to do something. I got to find something. The man sold the building and we got a certain time to be out.” And she said, “Well, they’re supposed to help ya’ll.” I said, “Yeah, he put [notices for] a couple apartments in our lobby and they ain’t no good. I’m not going there.” So she said, “Oh, I can understand that.”
So I signed up, and then that following week they called me and said, “Miss McLaurin, we are going to have the drawing if you want to come. If not, we’ll call you if you be drawn.”
LEWIS: And this was for a senior citizen place?
McLAURIN: It was mixed. Because all of it wasn’t for seniors. And it was just low income, you got a certificate and you paid according to your income. So that’s how that went. But anyway, this little girl pulled my name.
LEWIS: That’s great. It was a great apartment.
McLAURIN: Yeah, she pulled my name and that’s how I got that apartment.
LEWIS: So you were there ten years.
McLAURIN: Ten years.
LEWIS: And then you moved, really, across the road.
McLAURIN: I moved to Arthur Capper.
LEWIS: To Arthur Capper, the new senior citizens building.
LEWIS: And how long were you there?
LEWIS: Eight years. That’s the one across from the Marine Barracks.
LEWIS: And tell me the story about why you left there.
McLAURIN: The one at 620 ? I?
LEWIS: No, the senior citizens building, the Capper building.
McLAURIN: September 19 , which was a year this year, Arthur Capper went up in smokes. Up in flames. And I lost everything that I ever owned.
LEWIS: You sure did. Everything material.
McLAURIN: Except what was on my back.
LEWIS: Because you had gone with a friend to walk to the grocery store in the afternoon.
McLAURIN: Yeah, Darlene [Hattie’s niece, Darlene Hodges]. See, Darlene had spent the night with me because I had been staying out at her house. I had this cast on my hand where they had cut me in the palm of my hand to push that ligament back up in my finger. So I had to go back for him to take the cast off. He took the cast off and he took the stitches out. But when he took the stiches out, my hand was still open, so he had to wrap it with something like a cheesecloth. I said, “Well, why come my hand is not closed?” He said, “I don’t know, but I’m going to let it stay like this for a couple of days and if it doesn’t start closing on its own, we might have to go back in your hand.” I said, “Oh no. I ain’t going back in my hand.”
LEWIS: So Darlene came to help you.
McLAURIN: Yes. So we went to Providence [Hospital], and when we came back, Darlene had bought some bad fruit, and I said, “Darlene, why don’t you take that back to the store?” She said, “Well, Aunt Hattie, I don’t want to leave you. I know you are in pain and you are upset about your hand.” So I said, “Well, okay, I will walk with you and maybe I’ll get my mind off of my hand.” She said okay. So she got the stuff with the little seeds in them, that fruit you cut it and it’s kind of purple like inside, what do you call those?
LEWIS: Oh, pomegranates.
McLAURIN: Yeah. They was bad. So we walks back to the store and we were getting ready, and she says, “Aunt Hattie, are you going to take your purse?” And I said, “No, because I’m not buying nothing. I’m just walking with you.” So she said okay. She said, “Well, we’re going to have some fish for dinner. When I get down there, I’m going to buy a small cabbage to make some cole slaw.” And I said, “Okay. That sounds like a winner.” So we walked on down to the store. But when I was coming out the door …
LEWIS: Did you go to Whole Foods?
McLAURIN: No, we went to Harris and Teeters. Right there at Fourth and M [SE]. So coming out my door, I said to her, I said, “Look, you smell something, like something’s burning?” At first she said no, and then she kind of sniffed her nose like and said, “Yeah, I do.” I said, “Well, I’m going to stop in the office and tell Jay that I smell something burning, like it might be some resident is trying to cook something but the aide is gone. They’re in there trying to cook something and or done fell asleep or something.” But nobody wasn’t in the office, so we went on.
We was walking around there in the store, and Darlene got more stuff than what she had intended to get. And this girl and guy came in, they come in to get some food because that’s where we was, over there by the food. They said, “It’s something on fire up the street.” But they didn’t say whether it was Fourth Street or Fifth Street. “Something’s on fire up the street.” I didn’t think nothing of it, and then when we checked out and I got outside, I looked up and the sky was so dark with smoke, I said, “Oh my god!”
Then it just looked like I was sitting in a movie, the pictures started flashing before my eyes. My apartment. And I said to Darlene, I said, “Darlene, you know what, that’s my building on fire!” She said, “Naw it’s not, no it’s not Aunt Hattie.” I said, “Darlene, my building is on fire!” She’ll tell you this today. I said, “That’s my building on fire. That’s my building.” She said, “No, it’s not.” I said, “Yes it is.”
I could see it, it started flashing before me like I was sitting in a movie. So when we got down to Fifth and M to go up, we couldn’t even go up that street. Then, I said, “Well, let’s go up Fourth Street, so we went up Fourth Street, and we got to Fourth and L. That’s the furtherest we could get. I almost collapsed. The flames was so high, people said they could see it on [I-]395 and 295. It was so many fire trucks and stuff there, and I guess by me inhaling all of that, I started having an asthma attack right there.
So I had to go to Grubbs to get my pump and my medicine. I got up there and they gave me a hard way to go because I had just hadn’t been too long [since I] got all of my medicine [refilled]. My insulin, my needles and everything. I had got that. And one of the girls said, “Well her building, sir, she wouldn’t be in here trying to get more medicine if she didn’t need it. Her building is on fire and she can’t get in there to get it and she’s having an asthma attack.” And they was still giving me a hard way, so Doc, one of the docs that works in Grubbs, he had to come in and give me … a breathing test. Because you could hear me wheezing. I was going “ahh, ahh,” just like that. I couldn’t get my breath because I had done got so much smoke in my lungs.
LEWIS: But they know you at Grubbs.
LEWIS: And they came through for you.
McLAURIN: Yes, but it took them a long time. But one of the docs came and worked on me, he said “Don’t worry about it. If I’ve got to pay for it, I’ll pay for it. She need it.” So by the time they did that and I got everything what I needed, we got back in the car and tried to go back down to my apartment. I couldn’t even get through.
LEWIS: So you had walked out and your hearing aids, all you medicine, all your IDs, all your money, everything ….
McLAURIN: Uh huh. Got burnt up.
LEWIS: Got burnt up.
McLAURIN: Everything. Everything I ever owned or had in my life got burnt up. And what hurts me so bad, I mean I lost a lot, but my baby album books. I had pictures on all of my kids from a baby up until they graduated from high school and some in college. I can’t see that no more. And never will. And I have not really got over that yet.
LEWIS: A hard …
McLAURIN: And all of my medicine, my hearing aids. I had just got the hearing aids. That was $3000 and some, my insulin is $340 a box. All of that is gone, and all of my clothes, and I had a little stocking that Janie made and a potholder with my name and fingernail polish on it. See, all those are memory things, and they got burnt up. And it’s just a lot. And my mother and my grandmother’s pictures, and I had some pictures of some of the girls that was in the park with me. I had pictures of my doctors and things and stuff about them. “Number One Doctor.” All of that got burnt up. Nothing was saved in my apartment and some of my stuff went through the floor down to the third floor.
LEWIS: Oh gosh, oh gosh. That was a tragedy for a lot of people, that fire.
McLAURIN: You know what, if it had happened at night I wouldn’t be sitting here.
LEWIS: That’s one good thing about it.
McLAURIN: Charles Allen called one of the neighbors, she did work for him. So that’s how they knew the apartment was on fire. Charles Allen called Barbara because she works for him. When they’re running, you know, she’ll be out there passing out papers and stuff at the voting place. He called her and was asking her about something, but anyway he told her, he said, “Get out Barbara, get out.” She said, “Get out for what?” He said, “Your building is on fire!” She said, “No, it’s not, because ain’t no alarm went off.” And when she opened the door, she couldn’t even see my door. She stayed next door to me.
LEWIS: How did he know it was on fire?
McLAURIN: He said somebody called them and said they seen the smoke at 900 Fifth Street. So he looked into it and he saw it was our building. So when Barbara opened her door, she couldn’t see my door, and she stayed next door to me. And this happened around about three something.
LEWIS: Right after you left.
McLAURIN: And see, if it had happened at night, and as thick as the smoke was in there, if you couldn’t see, you’re feeling along the walls, you can’t get on the elevators to try to get to the stairwell and you can’t see that, what do you think would have happened at night? No sprinkler came on and no alarm went off.
LEWIS: Well, that’s just mind boggling.
McLAURIN: Well, I mean, I really believe that that building was set.
LEWIS: You do?
McLAURIN: Yes ma’am. I really believe that.
LEWIS: Are there investigations still ongoing?
McLAURIN: They still ain’t told us yet how. The fire marshal people ain’t told us nothing yet. And we asked them in a meeting, “Why is it taking ya’ll so long to tell us how the fire started? When the fire was over in Potomac Park, they got the news the next day how the fire started.” So that’s telling you something. And that fire was burning then when I came out of my building to go to the store, because I smelled something like it was burning.
LEWIS: The city helped you find a new apartment, right?
LEWIS: And how long did that take for you to get moved over?
McLAURIN: I’ll say the fire was September 19 and I stayed with my niece ’til after Thanksgiving.
LEWIS: And the city helped you find an apartment down on K Street Northwest?
McLAURIN: Yeah. At first they were taking us to rundown places, and a couple times I didn’t even get off the bus because I knew there wasn’t no point in me getting off like out there on Angel Place SE and Deanwood and Nannie Burroughs Avenue. I knew I wasn’t going to go there. I’d rather go to jail than to go there. Or wherever.
So then this is on K Street. This is a brand new building, but it’s not a senior building, it’s a mixed building. And it’s not what it should be either. There’s drugs everywhere, but what gets me, in the contract [it] says no drugs, no smoking , you got to be 50 feet from the building and no dogs. And all of that is in there. And sometimes I hate when Friday comes because I know ain’t nobody going to be in the office. And it’s heavy. And then we don’t have security all the time either. So I don’t know. But I just thank God I’m still here, because like I said, if it’d happened at night, I don’t think none of us would have survived. And then too if it hadn’t have been for those … God bless the Marines. Because they was coming with wheelchairs, everything they could think of. And they were bringing people out through the windows. I salute them because even when we had that earthquake they were there.
LEWIS: Oh they were? You could feel the earthquake there?
McLAURIN: Yeah. Yeah, the walls in the hallway cracked.
LEWIS: The Marines came then?
McLAURIN: The Marines came to help get some of the people down there [who] can’t walk.
LEWIS: Did the community help in other ways when that fire happened? I know ya’ll had a little bit of fire insurance.
McLAURIN: Everybody didn’t have it. But, yes, I got the papers at home … The same people that helped the Market.
LEWIS: Capitol Hill Community Foundation.
McLAURIN: Yeah. They helped us.
LEWIS: They gave everybody a grant, didn’t they?
McLAURIN: They gave us a credit card. And if it hadn’t been for them, I don’t know … because you know other people had personal friends, but if it hadn’t been for them, I don’t know. And I certainly sent a thank you letter to them. I sent a thank you letter plus wrote something in there. So I thank them.
LEWIS: I think a lot of people donated to them and then they were able to help people from the building. The neighborhood really did try to rally, I think.
McLAURIN: Yeah, yes, Lord. And they helped the Market when the Market …
LEWIS: And Frager’s too.
McLAURIN: Uh huh. Frager’s and the Market and us.
LEWIS: Can I brag about you a little bit? Because your apartment is beautiful. You have put together from scratch. You bought furniture at yard sales and had it painted, you’ve got pictures framed, you’ve got some pictures of some of your babies back …
McLAURIN: Got them from Darlene.
LEWIS: Yeah, Darlene really came through for you. And it’s just a beautiful environment that you have created and it is really is a testament to your strength and your resilience, and you’ve been a huge inspiration to me.
McLAURIN: Well thank you so much Mrs. Abernethy. You have too. You and your family, even goes back to Mrs. Lewis. Mrs. Lewis used to come and visit and she would tell me so many times, “Hattie I just love you so much for looking after my daughter and taking care of my grands.” And sometimes she would come up to me, I never would tell you because she would say don’t say nothing, and she would do this—she would stick maybe $40 or $50 in my hand. So that let me know she could see what I was doing. And I told her don’t worry about her daughter. “If I can do anything for her, if she’s sick or if she needs me to come, if the kids are sick, just call me I’ll be here just like lightning.” We used to laugh about that.
LEWIS: You know I was here without family in town, so you were kind of extended family for me.
McLAURIN: That’s what she was talking about.
LEWIS: So she knew that. She knew that I really depended on you in a lot of ways.
McLAURIN: Yeah, and I told her, I said, “Elizabeth was such a good mother. She didn’t want to leave her child, but I told her one day ‘you’ve got to get away from that because you never know what’s going to happen, and maybe one day you’ll need to leave, and if that child’s so used to you she ain’t going to want to stay with nobody.’”
LEWIS: Yeah, you always gave me good advice. Now I think this is a good place to stop unless there’s something else you think we haven’t covered that you think is important for people who are interested in Capitol Hill.
McLAURIN: Well, I say today that people interested in Capitol Hill, it’s been a big change from the time that I started because a lot of the areas where I was it was mostly blacks, and if I wouldn’t think it was safe enough for me to go, I know I wasn’t going to take any of my babies there. Because they always came first in my care. So I’d just like to say too I’ve been here to see a great change in DC. Some was good, and some not good. But that’s life. But I say to everyone, “do what you know to do and do your best,” as my grandmother said. If you got a job, tasting pies, do your best. And God will take care of you and do the rest. But do your best. And do your job. And you will go a long way in life. A long way. As I’m sitting here today, I’m 82 years old and I’ve been dealing with children ever since I was 11 and 12.
LEWIS: Well you’ve got a whole army of them that love you.
McLAURIN: Got a whole lot of them that love me and I love them. And I’m looking forward, I got lawyers in the family, I have a podiatrist in the family, doctors in the family, lawyers, a teacher … And I’m proud that I was a part of their life to see them. And I’m just waiting for the first grand to come! [laughter] I’m praying to that now, to ask God to let me be able to see my first grand come.
LEWIS: Well you’ve made a huge difference in their lives.
McLAURIN: Yep, so I just thank people for being kind to me. The families still think a lot of me, they still help me whatever they can. And I’m just grateful and I look back on my life sometimes, I go in the bathroom and look in the mirror, I say, “Well Lord, I must have did something good.” People think so much of me, and you know I don’t boast about it, but I’m glad I was raised to come up because when I see the way children are now I wouldn’t want to be like that.
LEWIS: Well you are very beloved.
END OF INTERVIEW