Photo Courtesy of the North Carolina State Archives
The nation was introduced to the William David Marlow family on May 7, 1964 when President Lyndon Johnson visited their Rocky Mount home as part of his Appalachian tour to kick off America's War on Poverty.
It is unclear how an Appalachian tour brought the president to Rocky Mount. Perhaps the trip planners were confused by the mountain-sounding name of the town. The other requirements, however, were met with precision detail: a rural family with lots of children, low income, at least one high school dropout and a father who was partially disabled and, preferably, a war veteran. And since Johnson planned to visit a black family in Georgia, the North Carolina family had to be white.
The Marlow household included seven children and a mother-in-law. Mr. Marlow, a WWII veteran had suffered a back injury in 1960. Their six-room house had no toilets or running water. The family earned about $1,500 a year as tenant farmers.
The brief 15-minute visit and photo op was followed by a trip into town, the president's mile-long motorcade traveling about five miles of crowd-lined highway.
That's when things got bad for the Marlows. Being singled out by the president of the United States as an example of poverty was humiliating. Mrs. Marlow said in a 1973 interview, "How would you like to be picked out as the most poverty-stricken family in the most poverty-stricken state? All it did was degrade us."
Iconic photos from the visit now show up for sale by online poster and home decorating retailers . The original photo traveled with the family to their subsequent homes and was passed down to their daughter Bonnie.
Nearly thirty years later, then N&O staff writer Charles Salter met with Bonnie to learn what had become of North Carolina family that was the face of poverty. Read his story below.
Bonnie Marlow Johnson returns to the house the President made famous.
LBJ AND THE MARLOWS IN THE WAR ON POVERTY, THIS SHARECROPPER FAMILY WAS PICKED FOR A TARGET. BUT THE PRESIDENT'S VISIT IN MAY 1964 WON NO VICTORIES FOR THE MARLOWS.
By Charles Salter Jr., Staff Writer
The News & Observer, 5/9/1993
ROCKY MOUNT -- In 15 unforgettable minutes on May 7, 1964, William David and Doris Marlow went from being just another struggling family to "the poorest people in the world."
All because the president paid them a house call.
President Lyndon Johnson flew to the farm by helicopter, chatted with the Marlows and posed for pictures to promote his War on Poverty. Then he was gone, disappearing by motorcade down Old Mill Road.
But in the weeks that followed, the Marlows and their seven children became the subjects of widespread attention and even ridicule. Instead of improving their lives, the highly publicized event only made matters worse. Several months later, unnerved by the exposure and desperate for a fresh start, they left that presidential farm behind and moved on.
What happened to the Marlows after that? An awful lot of living.
The seven children grew up, got jobs and started their own families. As for W.D. Marlow and his wife, before they died, they discovered a little more comfort and stability than they had in 1964, when W.D. told the president, "If I've ever been struggling, I am now."
"We were poor, " says Bonnie Marlow Johnson, 42, the only daughter. "I'll be the first to say that. But we don't have anything to be ashamed of now. We all got jobs and no one's on welfare."
But after nearly three decades, "the day the president came" still evokes strong feelings in the Marlow family. Strong enough to divide the children into those who talk with pride about their past and those who won't talk about it at all.
"That's one part of my damned life I'd rather forget, " one brother says before hanging up the phone.
"I don't understand my brothers, " says Billy, the oldest of the bunch at 46. "They make me so mad. They look on it as the president came in and destroyed our lives. ... I want to tell them, if you don't like who you are, if you don't like the name Marlow, go through the legal system and have your name changed.
"I'm proud of who I am. I'm not saying we reach up there with the Rockefellers, but we're everyday Americans. We're making it."
The Marlows are a builder, a crane operator, a construction foreman, a maintenance man, two roofers and a nursery worker. Except for Billy, who moved to Wilmington, they have stayed in the Rocky Mount area.
They're in their 30s and 40s. Most live in trailers, some practically next door to one another. Some drive trucks to work and crank up their fishing boats on weekends. One of their 28 kids attended community college, a family first.
By some standards, their lives are quite modest. But for the Marlows, they've climbed several rungs on the ladder of success. Which wasn't easy.
The Appalachia mix-up
In his 1964 state of the union address, President Johnson declared "unconditional war on poverty." Ever the politician, he set out soon after to tour Appalachia, an 11-state region considered the poorest in the country, to see the problems firsthand.
Somehow, though, he wound up in Rocky Mount, which is clear across the state from Appalachia.
In between public appearances, he visited families who exemplified some of the problems that inspired his anti-poverty bill.
According to newspaper accounts at the time, the Marlow visit was arranged on short notice, which may explain the Appalachia mix-up. A Nash County search committee followed the White House's rigid requirements: rural family, lots of children, a low income, at least one high school dropout and a father who was partially disabled and, preferably, a war veteran. And since Johnson planned to visit a black family in Georgia, the North Carolina family had to be white.
Mr. President, meet the Marlows.
Here was a rural family with seven kids and an annual income of about $1,500. They lived in a one-story, unpainted clapboard house on Erwin Stone's farm, about 5 miles outside Rocky Mount. As sharecroppers, they farmed 9 acres of tobacco and 11 1/2 acres of cotton. Ever since W.D., a World War II vet, suffered a slipped disc a few years earlier, the family had been having money problems. For a brief time, they were on welfare and received food stamps. Because their father was unable to work, some of the kids dropped out of school to support the family.
According to Bonnie, her mother was wary when two well-dressed strangers showed up on the farm in early May. About the only time she saw suits out in the country was for a funeral. The men asked if the president could pay a visit.
"The president of what?" Doris Marlow asked.
A country cousin
Bonnie, who was 13 then, couldn't keep the big secret. "I told Joyce, my best friend, and she told all. The teacher called me a liar. But she apologized later."
The White House staff prepared the little farm for the president's arrival by having the dirt road leading to the house graded and widened. Since the Marlows didn't have a telephone, four, including one direct line to the White House, were installed in the yard.
Bonnie remembers the Marine helicopters landing on a cleared field adjacent to the house, making the clothes on the line dance wildly in wind and shattering a window.
The farm looked every bit like a news conference, with 88 North Carolina journalists and photographers, the national media and a slew of dignitaries, including Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr., Gov. Terry Sanford, Sen. Sam Erwin and Sen. B. Everett Jordan and Reps. L.H. Fountain and Harold Cooley.
President Johnson greeted the family, then toured the sparsely furnished house with W.D. Marlow and his wife. They sat on the bed and talked about farming, W.D.'s bad back and the family's financial troubles. "There's a thousand like us, " Doris Marlow told the president.
A U.S. News & World Report story said the family treated the president, who grew up on a farm and was one of five children himself, "like a country cousin."
"He's just as good as you'd want to talk to, " W.D. said.
The children stayed on the porch, says Bonnie.
"In the country, children knew not to talk to grown-ups unless you were talked to first, " she says. "I don't mean to brag, but we were well-behaved."
They wore clean work clothes and, except for one brother, were barefoot. The Secret Service, says one brother, told them to leave their shoes off.
Two of the friendlier politicians (she doesn't remember who) gave Bonnie pens as mementos. She accepted them shyly and fidgeted with them as photographers fired flash after flash. The Rocky Mount Evening Telegram said, "The phrase 'respectable poverty' might have been invented to describe this family."
Reflecting on the visit the next day, W.D. told reporters, "I think things will start getting better."
"And even if it don't, " his wife said, "we have something to remember."
The Marlows would just as soon forget what happened in the weeks following Johnson's stop.
People walked right up to the house for souvenirs, chipping away at the concrete steps where the president had sat and digging up the dirt where the president had stood. Someone came along offering $500 and a new bedroom suite for the bed, says Billy. His mother, who thought the bed slept fine, refused to sell. Finally, W.D. put up a gate to keep out the gawkers. But that couldn't stop the crackpot letters, in which people insulted the family and blamed them for LBJ's politics and racial integration.
At school, other children teased the Marlows mercilessly. "They made us feel like we were poor white trash, " says Roy "Hammerhead" Marlow, 40, now a maintenance man at a Rocky Mount pharmaceutical lab. "You can be scarred if you want to, but you got to get on with your life."
"They called us the poorest people in the world. But it didn't bother me, " says Bonnie. "People called me fat when I was young. I could take a lot."
No matter what people said, one brother insists, "We weren't the poorest people in Nash County."
In the wake of the attention, W.D. suffered a nervous breakdown and had a falling-out with the landlord. The family had no choice but to leave and find work elsewhere. They moved into town, leaving behind their crops. The euphoria of the president's visit was a distant memory, replaced by embarrassment and bitterness.
An outraged editor in Charlotte wrote to Johnson, "I feel you are personally responsible for the ruination of the Marlow family. You have disgraced them for life."
The Marlows moved several times during the next 20 years. At each new home, the signed picture of LBJ and the family went up on the wall: "To the William Marlows, With Best Wishes, Lyndon B. Johnson."
Dear Mr. President
In August 1964, Doris Marlow wrote LBJ asking for help. "Since your Poverty Campaine visit to our home on May 7 we haven't had a peaceful day, " she wrote in longhand on lined notebook paper.
"We have just found that we are the joke of a whole nation, " she told LBJ, asking for a donation, clothes -- anything. "All we want is a decent chance for our children. Due to no fault of their on they are branded for the rest of their life as poverty stricken."
Three weeks later, the family received a $200 anonymous donation.
"She could outtalk a Philadelphia lawyer, " says Bonnie. "She was a talker and a writer."
Doris wrote the president again, to assure him that the money bought clothes for the children and paid their school supply fee. But the relief was only temporary.
"At the preasent time there is no one working but me and I work 40 hrs a week for $1.25 cent an hr. in a sewing room I have 8 children and my husban to suport and at this time I have rent that is due also no way to heat the house at all I don't have a heater and at this time I buy groceries for the family and fix lunch for 5 kids to take."
Two weeks later, Gov. Sanford's staff reported to the White House that they had found W.D. a job grading tobacco for 10 days and would try to find him something more permanent.
These are the last correspondences concerning the Marlows in the president's archives at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin, Texas.
The president's house
Standing outside the house on Old Mill Road for the first time in 29 years, Bonnie is anything but nostalgic. She gives the place a casual once-over, pointing out the front bedroom she shared with her grandmother. The yellow paint is chipping. A toaster is on the porch, an old car in back. No one answers the door.
"This isn't home for me, " she says. "This is the president's house. He's the one who made it famous."
The family moved so many times throughout her childhood that she can't keep the Nash and Edgecombe County addresses straight. One year, she changed schools seven times.
By the time she started another new school in the fall of 1964, she'd had enough. The moves and the missed days had put her behind her younger classmates. She dropped out in the seventh grade and worked in the fields full time. That's what all the other kids on farms did.
"I can't spell some words, but I taught myself some, " says Bonnie.
Billy was the only one of the children to graduate from high school. A few teachers tutored him on weekends and at night. "I'd go cut the grass then get some education, " he says.
Times were tough before LBJ ever visited.
"I heard my mother go to bed at night and pray to God for enough help to feed the kids, " says Billy. "Some of my brothers don't think we were poor. Well, I remember when there wasn't enough money to put that bag of candy on the table Saturday. My brothers don't know about that."
When Billy was in the fourth grade, he became friends with a younger boy at school. The two looked so much alike, they told other kids they were cousins. One day, they exchanged photos.
"We were the spitting image of one another in those pictures, " says Billy. "You'd have swore we was twins."
Doris Marlow took one look at the picture and sat her oldest boy down. Sometimes, she told him, the family's money problems forced them to do things they didn't want to do. Years earlier, one of her babies took sick with an ear infection. He needed medicine and an operation the family couldn't afford. So to save him, she gave up him for adoption.
Doris kept the photo. It was the only one she had of Billy's brother.
Billy didn't see him again at school. The boy's family disappeared, moving clear to another county. The Marlows looked but didn't find him.
Thirty years passed, says Billy, before the family was reunited several years ago.
'Mater gravy and biscuits
Growing up, some of the Marlow boys were embarrassed by little things that set them apart from other kids.
"My momma gave us a biscuit and a potato to take to school, " says Bonnie. "One of my brothers was too proud to take it. He'd rather starve himself."
Sometimes W.D. showed up at school with a fresh pot of hot food. To keep the other kids from teasing her, the teacher let Bonnie eat alone in the classroom.
Bonnie didn't think of her life as disadvantaged, unfortunate or impoverished. Heating water on the stove, bathing in a metal tub and using an outhouse were facts of life. No griping or whining.
"I didn't have money, so I didn't know what I was missing, " Bonnie says.
Besides, food was always on the table.
Billy still gets a hankering for "'mater gravy and biscuits" the way Momma made it. That's Bonnie's department. It's like pork chop gravy, she says, except with tomatoes.
There were lots of happy times, she says. Bonnie was a bit of tomboy and played ball with her brothers. If they didn't have a ball, she would offer one of the bald heads off her baby dolls.
Working it out
Tobacco was a big part of the Marlows' lives. As children they could prime it, loop it, cure it, strip it and tie it. The work day lasted from before dawn to way past sunset. W.D. kept the pay. In the late '60s, Bonnie was lucky if she got $10 to go to the beach with her older brothers for the weekend.
When she was 19, Bonnie left home to get away from tobacco. She found a job making drapes. A year later, she married Tommy "Buck" Johnson, who lived across the street from her on Old Mill Road. Her wedding outfit, a beige skirt, blouse and black shoes, was the first clothing she bought herself. It was nice, but she's never been "the dress type, " she says. Even now, at the nursery where she works in town, she prefers comfortable clothes, since she does a little of everything with the plants.
After Bonnie and Buck were married, her mother gave her only daughter a baby doll and told her, "Now you know what I want."
Bonnie, a big-hearted, stocky woman with a strong maternal streak, has no children. But she's a mother to every child she meets through friends, a boss or her husband's boss, which is how she helped raise Cathy, her goddaughter, who just had her first baby.
And she has Lucy, the little dachshund she gladly spoils. "Lucy is our real baby, " she says. "My brothers tell me that when they die, they want to come back as my dog."
And then there are her baby dolls. Every year, her mother gave her a new one at Christmas and on her birthday. When Doris died of emphysema in 1981, she told W.D. to make sure Bonnie continued to get those dolls. Every year, she adds a few more to the doll room adjacent to the kitchen.
"Every doll in here has a story, " Bonnie says, surrounded by more than 300 of them.
The blond doll in the Victorian dress arrived in a coffee pot one year from out of state. It was from Billy, who had disappeared for a while.
"That was his way of telling me he was all right, " she says.
Bonnie and Billy keep in touch now. With their new truck, she and Buck haul their fishing boat down to Wilmington on weekends to see him.
After the president visited, some reporters described Billy as a young Rock Hudson. Billy shrugs that off. More like James Dean, a hell raiser.
"Anybody who knows me will tell you that I have been one of the wildest, craziest-acting persons that's probably ever walked in Edgecombe County, " he says. "I had a tendency to open a can of whip butt."
He wanted to see the world. A few years after the LBJ visit, he hit the road, traveling to Florida, New Jersey, everywhere, he says. Along the way, he worked in roofing and carpentry. When his fighting got him into trouble with the law, he turned to his mother.
"She was the Rock of Gibraltar in our family. I loved my father dearly, but he was not, " says Billy. "The biggest thing I remember from him was the strap."
Doris worked in the fields when her husband couldn't. She found a new job, as a nurse's aide, when there was no farm work. And after W.D. suffered a heart attack in 1972, she quit her job to look after him. The family survived on Aid to Families with Dependent Children and food stamps. Later, as war vets, they received veterans' pay, enough to buy clothes, towels, store-bought cookies, things she went without for years.
If anyone could talk to wild Billy and get through to him, she could.
"I always had a mustang in me, " he says. "Momma said, 'One day you're going to find a woman that'll ride you til you're tame.' I hope that's the one I got now, " he says of his fourth wife, Wilma.
After his mother died, Billy calmed down.
"I was afraid of taking responsibilities my whole life, " says Billy, a father of eight. "With her gone, I had no choice.
Until last year, he ran his own building business, with nearly a dozen employees. Now he oversees a crew for a Wilmington construction company.
"When I have a problem or a crisis today, I reach in my mind and let my mother help me. I think how she would discuss it with me."
A divided family
After Doris died, the family quit gathering at the homeplace on Sunday afternoons. Billy was the one who tried to do something about it. He organized a family picnic and spoke his mind.
"A family is supposed to stay together, " he told them. "If we've got differences in the family, let's air them out and not let them come round a corner and hit us head-on."
As her dying mother had requested, Bonnie cared for her father. Five days a week, she cooked his meals and cleaned the cinder block house he shared with his sons whenever they needed a place to go.
He must have turned the oil heater up too high that night in March 1988, she says. The house accidentally caught fire, killing him.
She tried organizing a family Thanksgiving and Christmas. But there were too many excuses, squabbles and no-shows.
LBJ watches over Bonnie at night. The family photo with the president hangs in her bedroom, and when she looks at it, she doesn't see politics. She sees her family in poorer yet happier times.
Some of the brothers are furious that anyone in the family wants to talk about the past. They felt betrayed by President Johnson. They say their parents were taken advantage of and deliberately misled about the nature of the visit. No one mentioned poverty, the brothers say, until the stories came out. Yet that stigma has plagued them for nearly 30 years, regardless of how much their lives have improved. They don't want another story. They don't want their names in a newspaper. They feel betrayed by their own siblings.
"They're going to shoot me for talking about all this, " Bonnie says, shaking her head. Still, she adds later, "I'm still here for them if they ever need me."
Billy says it's all a big misunderstanding. He says the family was picked because they had struggled in the past and refused to quit. They fought poverty every day.
That's something he wants his youngest, 2-year-old Adrianna Marie, to know someday.
"I'm proud as hell to grow out of that and be a self-sustaining, worthwhile individual today who doesn't have to ask for anything, " he says. "We would like to show America that people can reach down and pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make it on their own."