County Man, 96, Has 74-Year Voting Record
By Claude Starling
For some voters the task of remembering the last time they cast a ballot is a formidable one, for others the memory of that first ballot often escapes them.
But Howard Farmer remembers the last ballot he case. He also knows the first ballot he ever cast, and he remembers a whole lot of those in between.
Farmer’s last ballot was cast June 4 in the Wilson County Democratic Party’s runoff primary to nominate a sheriff’s candidate.
And his first ballot?
Well, Howard Farmer voted Republican that first time — casting a ballot for then incumbent President William McKinley in the election of 1906.
McKinley and his running mate, Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt, outpolled free silver Democrat William Jennings Bryan and his running mate, Adlai Stevenson (grandfather of a a more famous son of a more recent era), for the presidency and vice presidency that year.
For most of us the names McKinley, Roosevelt, Bryan and Stevenson, are little more than names out of history books. But for Howard Farmer they were real. Howard Farmer was 22 years old when he cast that first ballot 74 years ago.
Th election was something of a milestone for him — a black man, son of slave parents, voting in a Southern state, casting a ballot for the first time in his life.
It was almost his last election. Various statutes enacted in following years prevented many Negroes from again going to the polls. It was a long wait — 14 years until he again voted, this time in a local election.
Voting became a habit with Howard Farmer and he claims he hasn’t missed an election since, especially not a presidential election. It’s a record few voters can match.
Today, Howard Farmer is a retired tobacco farmer and landowner who lives in his own home on his own farm in Taylors township at Rt. 2, Elm City.
He is married to a second wife and what time isn’t spent in gardening and around the house is spent religiously — he has been a preacher since 1920 and only last week was asked to preach in area church services.
He was born Feb. 2, 1878 in Wilson County, a son of Alford Farmer, who derived his name from the Wiley Farmer plantation on which he was born a slave. His mother was a slave on another nearby plantation near the intersection of N.C. Highways 97 and 58, said Farmer.
To the best of his knowledge he was one of five sons and three daughters — he is unsure about aunts and uncles due to fact that slave families were sometimes broken up by their owners.
Farmer spoke little of his early years, but he did explain the loss of his left eye at age 15 in an incident involving a white landowner’s son.
According to Farmer, he was visiting on a neighboring farmer’s land and the man asked him to help in the harvesting. When he refused, the man, angered by such a refusal, struck him across the side of the head with a weeding hoe, destroying his left eye.
Later the man was convicted by a local jury for assault and ordered to pay Farmer $50 and costs of court — an action Farmer said was “unheard of” in those times: a white man being order to pay for injuries done a black man.
Even though the offender is “long once dead,” said Farmer, no malice was held. To Farmer, the incident is simply an occurrence out of his past.
Howard Farmer was probably more fortunate than most young Negroes around the turn of the century. He received an education — through high school — at what was then Farmer’s School (named for Wiley Farmer.)
In 1900, he was living in Nash County sand voted that first time at Joyner’s Crossroads in that county. “Most all of us (Negroes) were voting Republican at that time, ” he remembers.
In 1903 he married his first wife Sarah at a location near what is today the Rocky Mount Wilson Airport. They built a frame house on the Walter Pridgen farm near Elm City and Farmer, in addition to working on the Pridgen farm, worked in a nearby saw mill
He remembers putting $100 in an Elm City bank in 1906 and leaving it on deposit until 1913 when he and his wife purchased a lot and built a house on Pine and Beal streets in Rocky Mount. But only a year later, he rented a farm from an area man named Offie Parker. Three years later, he rented a second farm. Later Farmer and three of his brothers-in-law purchased the two farms.
Farmer said he paid $9,000 for the 56-acre tract he purchased. He later bought another 140-acre tract but that has since been sold. A few acres of the original 56-acre tract have been sold off for building lots, but Farmer still holds title to more than 40 acres of the land he first bought more than 50 years ago.
In 1920 Farmer became a preacher — he said he was converted in 1909 — in the Missionary Baptist denomination. From 1931-33 he pastored a Lucama area church, which had called him. He got 35 cents each Sunday for his expenses and the final year the congregation raised $16 for him, he noted.
In 1922, Farmer’s only son Quentin, was born. He was educated in county elementary school and graduated from Wilson’s Darden High School — the only black high school in the area at that time. Quentin now resides in San Francisco, Calif.
Howard Farmer has a grandson, James, serving in the U.S. Army in Germany, and one great-grandson, James Anthony Farmer, who, with his grandfather, visited Howard Farmer a week ago.
Howard Farmer hides his years well. The events he has witnessed, the men he has met, seem like turning back the pages of history.
Farmer returned to the ballot box in 1914 and remembers voting for local candidates: county commissioners. The exact years faded in his memory, but the first local candidate he can remember casting a ballot for was John Thompson, a Wilson County commissioner. Howard Farmer claims he hasn’t missed an election since and has been a registered Democrat in Wilson County since 1914, casting his ballots in Taylors township.
The first automobile he remembers is a 1913 Model T Ford; he remembers Booker T. Washington; and more recently he remembers — but not too fondly — his first airplane ride: he was 95 and flew a 727 “Whisperjet” to California and a 747 “Jumbo” jet on the return trip; he knew Martin Luther King and went to New York once to meet him.
“Everything is better now,” said the 96-year-old Farmer when asked to compare life as he he has known it to the life now possible, and cited “better opportunities” for black man and women.
But, in an afterthought, he added “Maybe not necessarily what it ought to be but it is better.” Religiously speaking, he said “We’ve got to live right; it doesn’t matter what church you join; if you don’t live right, hell is our own.”
Farmer’s health remains robust. His son took him to a doctor recently and was advised to let his father “do whatever he wants to do; whatever makes him happy.”
There will be no surprise if Howard Farmer continues to do a little gardening, to do some guest preaching, and, in November, to see him visit the polls in Taylors Township — it’s what he’s been doing for most of his 96 years anyway.
— Wilson Daily Times, 6 July 1974.
On 18 September 1868, Alfred Farmer, son of Charles and Sarah Matthews, married Precilla Strickland, daughter of Carey Williams and Rhody Taylor, in Wilson County.
In the 1880 census of Taylors township, Wilson County: Alfred Farmer, 38, wife Priscilla, 34, and children Henry, 11, Charley, 9, Pharo, 5, and Howard, 1.
In the 1900 census of Rocky Mount township, Nash County: widowed farmer Zanie Winstead, 56, her children Josha, 20, Sarah E., 19, and Emma, 15, and grandson Clarance, 2, plus boarder Howard Farmer, 22, a farm laborer.
On 10 February 1903, Pharaoh Farmer applied in Nash County for a marriage license for Howard Farmer, 25, son of Alfred and Priscila Farmer, of Wilson County, and Sarah Eliz. Winstead, 25, daughter of Reddick and Zanie Winstead, of Nash County. The marriage took place the next day at the home of Sarah’s mother in Rocky Mount township, Wilson County.
In the 1910 census of Taylors township, Wilson County: Howard Farmer, 31, and wife Sarah, 31.
On 12 September 1918, Howard Farmer of RFD 4, Elm City, registered for the World War I draft at the Wilson County draft board. His registration card reports that he was born 2 February 1878, that he worked as a farmer for Offie Parker, and that his nearest relative was Sara Lisa Farmer. He signed his card with an X.
In the 1920 census of Taylors township, Wilson County: Howard Farmer, 42, and wife Sarah, 42.
In the 1930 census of Taylors township, Wilson County: Howard Farmer, 52, wife Sarah, 51, and son Quinton, 7.
In the 1940 census of Taylors township, Wilson County: Howard Farmer, 61, wife Sarah, 61, and son Quenten, 17.
Howard Farmer died 1 October 1980 in Wilson, North Carolina.