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.
Born in 1899 in Union, South Carolina, Clara Sims grew up picking cotton in a sharecropping family. Clara’s mother died when she was six. By that time, Clara, the second oldest child, had two sisters and two brothers. In her late adolescence, the family moved to Gaffney, South Carolina, where they again sharecropped cotton. The family moved again to Durham when Clara was twenty-six. In Durham, Clara’s father was hired as a housekeeper for a white family, and she cooked.
In 1936, Clara accepted a job at Duke as a hospital worker, making beds for doctors and anesthesiologists on call. After twenty-eight years of working for Duke without one sick day (“I don’t believe I even sneezed.”), taking care of her “boys and girls,” she retired and began devoting full time to her garden.
Here she grew corn, peas, beans, okra, sweet potatoes, peanuts, pumpkins, butternut squash. She spent much of her day weeding and watering, trimming and picking.
Several weeks after Clara was photographed in her garden, she fell and broke a hip. Though limited by her injury and the walker she leans on, Clara continues to tend her plants, pulling weeds and picking flowers, collecting fruit from her trees. (written in 1992)