Correction: A photo caption with this story incorrectly identified President Lyndon Johnson's daughter, Lynda Bird Johnson, as his wife, "Lady Bird" Johnson.
Fifty years ago next week, his 1964 poverty tour brought President Lyndon Johnson to the home of a Rocky Mount sharecropper. Once the visit was over and the excitement had died down, N&O writer Charles Craven checked in on the Marlow family.
The piece of board to which the direct phone to the White House had been attached was still nailed to the tree in front of the tenant house.
And things have been slow in getting back to normal for William David Marlow, the sharecropper who was host to President Lyndon B. Johnson on May 7. “I really enjoyed it,” said Marlow, “but I’ve been asked so many questions about it I’m beat, to tell you the truth.”
Marlow and his family had been selected for the President’s dramatic visit to underscore the Administration’s desire to break the cycle of poverty that plagues so many farm families.
“After we shook hands, he was just like a neighbor,” said Marlow. “He was right down to earth. And his daughter (Lynda) was just like any fine farm or city girl I’ve ever seen.”
Johnson and scores of newsmen had arrived in Marine helicopters on the little farm which had already been invaded by the secret service men and State troopers.
How had the Marlow family been selected for the visit?
“Well, it was George Stephens (assistant to Gov. Terry Sanford) and the Edgecombe and Nash County agriculture agents and the welfare people who came here Tuesday and asked me how I would like to have the President come to see me,” said Marlow. “I was over there in the field, me and the boys, and I said sure I’d like it. We’d be honored.”
A hectic two days followed. Secret service men came to the farm, began ranging around the woods and fields. They had a telephone installed in the cow pen. The direct phone to the White House was attached to the tree just across the road from the house. It rested in a locked box.
Four telephone booths for the press were set up at the edge of a field about 100 yards from the faded yellow clapboard house which has no plumbing.
Marlow said that during this activity, he, his two oldest sons and his wife went about the farm chores. The other five children were in school.
Since the President’s visit to the tenant farm about five miles from Rocky Mount, the Marlows have had other visitors. The curious drive up to the house, turn around and go away. “About 200 cars come through here every day anywhere from 7 o’clock in the morning until 10 at night,” said Jimmy Marlow 16, the second oldest son.
William David Marlow, 39, was born in a farm family of seven children on a farm in Halifax County, between Scotland Neck and Tarboro. All of his life he had been close to the land and hard luck was never far away. He dropped out of school in the seventh grade.
He served in the Navy for two and a half years aboard the destroyer escort Raby. He remembered her number, “698.” But he couldn’t remember the engagements she was in. “Oh, I don’t know the battles,” he said. “I got two or three bronze stars.”
He married his wife, Doris, in 1946. She is a native of Tarboro.
For a time Marlow was employed in the plumbing business. “Things weren’t bad then,” said Billy, the oldest son. “They weren’t paradise ... but they weren’t bad.”
The family has remained largely itinerant in Nash and Edgecombe counties. Marlow said much of his employment has been “day work,” meaning farm labor while not a tenant basis.
Making do on the farm
Marlow has been chronically handicapped by the back injury since it occurred in 1960. They moved to the present farm in Nash County about five and a half miles from Rocky Mount last January. The farm is owned by Ervin Stone.
The two older boys do most of the farm work. Marlow mostly supervises.
Billy, 17, who appears to be an alert boy, said he hopes to go to night school in Rocky Mount “after we make a crop.”
His mother said, “If we can make one crop – then maybe we can do something for the boys. It all depends on the crop.”
Other than the money crops, the Marlows have a vegetable garden.
Their meals consist chiefly of vegetables, fatback and bread. With so many visitors the other day, Jimmy, 16, who had charge of baking the biscuits, let them burn.
“We haven’t missed a meal lately,” said Billy, a stocky boy. “And one thing ... maybe we ain’t got some things a lot of other people have got. But we’ve got health and happiness – and we stay together. If one gets a problem we chip in and straighten it out.”
Billy is sympathetic with his father. “It’s mighty depressing to have a big family and not be able to do much for them,” he said.
Read more about the Marlow family at blogs.newsobserver.com/pasttimes/a-visit-from-the-president