In 1990 and 1992 I made this series of portraits of individuals more than seventy years old and living independently in and around Durham, North Carolina. The attached texts were written by Nicholas Sholley from interviews he conducted with each person. My portraits were published in 1997 by W. W. Norton in Old and On Their Own with additional photographs by Thomas Roma of elderly in Brooklyn, New York, and text by Robert Coles.
The oldest of twelve children, Roy Tapp was born in 1906 to sharecroppers in Person County, North Carolina. Working from an early age, Roy never finished the third grade. Roy grew tobacco most of his life. In his late twenties, he left home, sharecropped for eight years, then continued to farm his own land. When he was thirty, Roy got married but divorced eighteen months later. His second marriage lasted over 50 years and produced eleven children, two of his daughters making it to college. Though all the children grew up on the farm, none are farming now.
Roy bought a pair of mules for $400 in the late-1930’s and called them Mayory and Roady. These mules served him for twenty years before he started on his second pair. After several years on this pair, Roy bought a new tractor in 1962– the only way he could continue farming commercially. Gone too are the days Roy would haul his tobacco to market in a mule-drawn wagon (the same that brought him to church when he was five years old): to Danville, South Boston, Mebane, Durham, Roxboro.
In 1984, Roy was driving his tractor along the side of the road when a passing motorist clipped one of the tractor’s big tires ripping it off the axle. Roy was badly hurt but recovered quickly. Still his days of heavy farming were practically finished. He worked for three and a half years as a custodian.
Today he continues to work the small parcel of his own land and hires himself out to other farmers for small jobs, driving his tractor often. He lives with one of his sons in Cedar Grove, North Carolina.
He is photographed in the backyard of his home with his fields behind him.