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.
Lillie Vanhook Beasley was born in 1910 into a sharecropping family. She was the second of six children. Lillie’s mother died when she was only five. Her father went on to marry three more times and lived to the age of ninety-four.
Soon after her mother’s death, Lillie’s father moved the family from Person to Orange County where they sharecropped tobacco and corn. Lillie made it to the fifth grade before she had to spend all of her spare time on the farm.
While in her twenties, she married Oscar Beasley. They had eleven children (four sons, seven daughters), all of whom completed high school. Two of their daughters completed college degrees.
In 1965, Oscar’s family convinced him to apply for a loan to help get out of sharecropping. By then Oscar received regular social security checks. With additional support from their working children, Oscar and Lillie stopped sharecropping and were able to build their own house. Over the years, the children helped them pay off the loan. Today, none of the eleven children work on farms; three live close by and visit often.
Oscar died in 1990.
Lillie tends to the flowers around her house and goes on outings with the Golden Age Club, the local senior citizens’ organization.
Lillie is photographed outside her home, in front of a row of plants she started from seed.