WPA writer Samuel S. Taylor interviewed Martha Ruffin, age 80, 1310 Cross Street, Little Rock, Arkansas. (He also interviewed her husband Thomas Ruffin, born in Franklin County, North Carolina. The couple were one of dozens of Wilson County families that migrated to Arkansas in the 1880s and ’90s.)
“I was born in North Carolina, and I was seven years old when the Surrender was. Every one of my children can tell you when they was born, but I can’t. My mother, Quinettie Farmer was her name. Brother Robert Farmer is my cousin. He is about the same age as my husband. He got married one week and me and my husband the next. My father’s name was Valentine Farmer. My grandmother on my mother’s side was Mandy Harrison, and my grandfather’s name on my mother’s side was Jordan Harrison. My grandpa on my father’s side was named Reuben Farmer, and his wife was Nancy Farmer. I have seed my grandpa and grandma on my father’s side. But my mother didn’t see them on my mother’s side.
“I ‘members my daddy’s white folks’ names, Moses Farmer. My father never was sold. My daddy, Valentine Farmer, was a ditcher, shoemaker, and sometimes a farmer. My mother was a house girl. She washed and ironed. I couldn’t tell exactly what my grandparents did. My grandparents, so my parents told me, were mostly farmers. I reckon Moses Farmer owned about three hundred slaves.
“I was born on Robert Bynum’s place. He was my mother’s owner. He married one of the Harrison girls and my mother fell to that girl. My mother done just about as she pleased. She didn’t know nothin’ about workin’ in the field till after the Surrender.
“The way my mother and father happened to meet — my old master hired my daddy to do some work for him and he met my mama that way.
“The way my folks learned they was free was, a white school-teacher who was teaching school where we stayed told my mother she was free, but not to say nothing about it. About three weeks later, the Yankees come through there and told them they was free and told my old boss that if he wanted them to work he would have to hire them and pay them. The school-teacher stayed with mother’s folks — mother’s white folks. The school-teacher was teaching white folks, not niggers. She was a Yankee, too. My mother was the house girl, and the school-teacher stayed with her folks. The War was so hot she couldn’t git no chance to go back home.
“My daddy farmed after the War. He farmed on shares the first year. The next year, he bought him a horse. He finally owned his own farm. He owned it when he died. He had about one hundred acres of land.
“I have pretty fair health for an old woman like I am. I am bothered with the rheumatism. The Lawd wouldn’t let both of us git down at the same time. (Here she refers to her husband who was sick in bed at the time she made the statement. You have his story already. It was difficult for her to tell her story, for he wanted it to be like his. — Ed.)
“I belong to the Primitive Baptist Church. I haven’t changed my membership from my home.
“I got married in 1882, in February. How many years is that? I got so I can’t count up nothin’. Fifty-six years. Yes, that’s it; that’s how long I been married. I had a little sister that got married with me. She didn’t really git married; she just stood up with me. She was just a little baby girl. They told me I was pretty near twenty-three years old when I married. I have a daughter that’s been married twenty-five years. We had older daughters, but that one was the first one married. I have got a daughter over in North Little Rock that is about fifty years old.
“Her husband is dead. We had ten children. My daughter is the mother of ten children too. She got married younger than I did. This girl I am living with is my baby. I have four children living — three girls and one boy. A woman asked me how many children I had and I told her three. She was a fortuneteller and she wanted to tell me my fortune. But I didn’t want her to tell me nothin’. God was gittin’ ready to tell me somethin’ I didn’t want to hear. I’ve got five great-grandchildren. We don’t have no great-great-grandchildren. Don’t want none.”
The old lady’s style was kind of cramped by the presence of her husband. Every once in a while, when she would be about to paint something in lurid colors, he would drop in a word and she would roll her phrases around in her mouth, so to speak, and shift and go ahead in a different direction and on another gear.
Very pleasant couple though — with none of the bitterness that old age brings sometimes. The daughter’s name is Searles.
In 1866, Reuben Dew and Nancy Farmer swore to their 52-year cohabitation before a Wilson County justice of the peace, thereby legitimating their marriage.
In the 1870 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: Vance [Valentine] Farmer, 40, wife Quinnie, 30, and children Clara, 13, Patsey [Martha], 11, Isaac, 10, Nancy, 8, Leah, 6, and Mattie, 2. Also, in Wilson township: Reuben Farmer, 68, wife Nancy, 71, and Luke Farmer, 11.
In the 1880 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: Bullie [“Vallie”] Farmer, 50, wife Qunnia, 46, and children Patsie, 21, Isaac, 20, Nannie, 18, Lera, 16, Mattie, 10, Caroline, 8, Bettie, 6, Mary J., 4, Charles, 3, and Sarah E., 2, plus Nancy Farmer, 90.
On 5 February 1882, Vaul Farmer, 52, married Mary E. Ruffin, 43, in Wilson County. On 19 March 1882, in the town of Stantonsburg, Robert Farmer, 19, married Marinda Bynum, 18. I have not found Martha Farmer Ruffin’s marriage record.
In the 1900 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: farmer Valintine Farmer, 70, wife Mary, 58, children Mattie, 30, Elizabeth, 26, Mary J., 24, and Elizar, 22, son-in-law Charly Freeman and daughter Carolina. All did farm work except Elizabeth, who was a cook, and Elizar, who was a schoolteacher. Meanwhile, in Brodie, Pulaski County, Arkansas: North Carolina-born Thomas Ruffin, 48, his North Carolina-born wife Patsie, 42, and children Wiley, 14, Marina, 12, James, 10, Mammie, 8, and Lucy, 4. The last two children were born in Arkansas.
Valentine Farmer made out his will the following spring, and his estate went into probate in 1906:
North Carolina, Wilson County } I, Valentine Farmer, of the aforesaid County and State, being of sound mind, but considering the uncertainty of my earthly existence, do make and declare this my last will and testament.
First: My executor hereinafter named, shall give my body a decent burial, and pay all funeral expenses, together with all my Just debts out of the first money which may come into her hands belonging to my estate.
Second: I give to my daughter Clary Batts, the wife of Amos Batts, and Patsy Ruffin, the wife of Thomas Ruffin, the sum of one dollar each.
Third: I give and bequeath to my beloved wife, Mary Eliza Farmer, during her lifetime or widowhood, my entire estate, both real and personal.
Fourth: At the death or marriage of my wife, I give and bequeath to my four daughters, hereinafter named — Mattie Farmer, Elizabeth Farmer, Mary Jane Farmer and Sarah Eliza Farmer, all of my personal property of whatsoever kind.
Fifth: At the death or marriage of my wife, I give and bequeath to my children hereinafter named, viz: Nannie Farmer, Louvenia Farmer, Elizabeth Farmer, Mary Jane Farmer, Charlie Farmer and Sarah Eliza Farmer all of my real estate.
Sixth: I hereby constitute and appoint my wife Mary Eliza Farmer my lawful executor to all intents and purposes to execute this my last will and testament, according to the true intent and meaning thereof; hereby revoking and declaring void all other wills and testaments by me heretofore made.
In witness whereof, I, the said Valentine Farmer, do hereunto set my hand and seal this 9th day of April, 1901. Valentine (X) Farmer
Signed, sealed, published and declared by the said Valentine Farmer to be his last will and testament in the presence of us, who at his request and in his presence do subscribe our names as witnesses thereto /s/ E.O. McGowan, W.H. Dixon
Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers Project, 1936-1938, Arkansas Narratives, Volume 2, Part 6. Federal Writers Project, United States Work Projects Administration; Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.