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 1908 in Lowes Grove, North Carolina, Henry Markham farmed all his life. In 1920, when Henry’s father bought eighty-six acres of farmland in Durham, Henry moved there along with the rest of his family. Henry was educated to the eighth grade level at White Hall School (on the corner of Erwin Road and Cornwallis Road). He married Ruba Lee Mangum in 1934 and built his cement-block house on Pickett Road in 1935. Their only son Jerry was born in 1937.
From 1943 until 1947, Henry worked in a local seed and feed store but returned to farming full-time after that. Growing tobacco and vegetables to sell at market, and corn to feed his livestock (cow, hogs, and mules), Henry spent most of each day and much of the year in the fields. When he was not farming, he was peddling his vegetables on a route he would follow through southwest Durham. Because of slacking sales, he stopped peddling vegetables in 1962, the same year Ruba Lee died. Henry continued to grow the same crops but on less land, selling off acreage to stay solvent in an increasingly competitive agricultural market. In 1965, he married Alice Booth.
Ten years ago, Henry began to carve wood, building birdhouses and furniture, Chippendales and planters. He had been interested in woodworking his whole life and now, with less land to work, could fully explore his interest.
Today, 11 acres are left of the original 86, a fate common to the family farm throughout the United States. Henry’s son, Jerry, now lives in the house he built in 1935.
Henry Markham is photographed in front of his grape
arbor. He died in the summer of 1991. (written in 1992)