When Flora Mitchell was a 4-year-old living in Buckland, Charlie Chaplin had recently made his film debut and World War I was raging. But Mitchell had more immediate concerns — an ornery great-grandfather whom she and her mother wanted to get away from.
“He scooped the eyes out of a picture of his wife that was up on the wall and said, ‘That will teach you to look at me all the time,’ ” recalled Mitchell, who is now 101. “And when the dog ran away for two years and finally came back, he rubbed it down with turpentine. The dog ran away again — I don’t blame him.”
Mitchell and her mother fled, too — to the District, where she attended Dunbar High School and Miner Teachers College. She has lived here ever since, and on Tuesday she was one of 25 D.C. residents honored by the city for passing the 100-year mark.
The annual event, put on by the D.C. Office on Aging and Family Matters of Greater Washington, a nonprofit group that provides services for the elderly, was started 27 years ago under then-Mayor Marion Barry (D) to honor about 10 centenarians the city counted at the time. “There weren’t many people,” said Darlene Nowlin, a spokeswoman for the Office on Aging. “It was a novel idea.”
Now, 195 people who at least 100 years old have registered with the city, and D.C. officials estimate that there are 100 more who have not registered. Their ranks continue to grow — this year, 40 new centenarians were added to the list, which reflects the demographics of the District and of the United States.
In the past three decades, the population of centenarians in the United States grew by 66 percent, to about 53,000 people — almost twice the rate of the total population, according to a 2012 Census report. Most are women — for every 100 centenarian women, there are only 20 centenarian men.
In the District, 120 of those registered are African Americans and 21 are men. About 20 percent live in nursing homes, with many of those who live at home staying in the same community for years, according to the Office on Aging.
Dressed in fancy hats and jackets, attendees dined on chicken and salmon at the Washington Plaza Hotel. They heard barbershop tunes from a quartet called the Potomac River Rascals and a “poetic salute” by Mary McCoy, a 62-year-old who was crowned Ms. Senior DC last year and is young enough to be their granddaughter. Each centenarian received a gold medal; one quipped that he already has several at home.
That does not surprise Tonya Smallwood, president and chief executive of Family Matters — nor does the fact that centenarians are increasingly more alert and mobile. “Over the years, we’re living longer and we’re becoming a healthier population,” she said. “There are more seniors living in their own houses than there used to be.”
Azora Irby, a volunteer coordinator for Family Matters, said, “I’m seeing that people are stronger, more alert, probably because of medication that we have now, and that people are better educated — those kinds of things lead to a long life.”
Sitting at a table in a fitted red jacket and a black fur hat, Mitchell carefully raised a forkful of salad to her mouth and mused over how the District had changed since she moved to the city.
“The best change I know is segregation is over,” she said. “We can go where we want to, stay where we want to, and who cares? I remember the humiliation of having segregation — the white people were white, the black people were black, and we were supposed to do what they said. I think the girls from New York really stopped segregation. They were running with all the Italians and Jews, and they just didn’t care. Gradually, all of a sudden, nobody was segregated.”
But some said that some things have changed for the worse — such as the crime rate.
“People weren’t at liberty to turn loose and do what you wanted to do,” said Rayfield Griffin, 102, a former cabdriver and building engineer for National Geographic who attended with his grandson. “They had laws. Now, regardless of the law, they go out and do what they want to do. They respected it more back then.”
Many of the centenarians credited faith in God for their longevity, but they had other tips as well. “Don’t ever give up a project you’re working on,” said Griffin, who has a neatly trimmed mustache and sideburns and who did home repairs until he fell off a ladder a couple of years ago. “I like to do little things around the house that need done.”
Some recalled a world now vanished and the rise of a new one. “I saw the State Department built, and the Kennedy Center,” said Mary Parsons, a 103-year-old with soft white curls who attended with her niece. “We used to go down to the Lincoln Memorial and sit on the steps and listen to the National Symphony play; they were on a barge.”
Parsons lived in Foggy Bottom when it was a warren of dilapidated rowhouses that she recalled as run-down but friendly and safe. “We would come home at 11 at night, and all these people would be sitting on their porches and on the steps, and they’d call to us,” she said. “They were so kind, nobody ever tried to hurt us. It was a nice place to live.”
Alyce Dixon, 105, moved to the District from Boston in 1924 and was one of the first women to join the military as a WAC, or member of the Women’s Army Corps, where she wrote for the in-house newspaper about the doings of women in the military.
“I wrote a column called Wacky Chatter,” she said. “All the naughty things they did, I told, but I told it nice.”
Dixon was married for 13 years but split with her husband after he tried to stop her from sending money to her family. She got a job for $25 an hour and continued to help them. The secret to longevity, she said, is: “Giving and sharing. Money in the bank, you can’t take it with you. Share it. There’s a lot of need.”
When you die, she noted, “Uncle Sam’s going to spend it.”