Person County Century Family Farm owner born into slavery; farm symbolizes hope and hard work.

by | Feb 26, 2020

Not too many families can claim that their farm has been maintained in their family for more than 100 years. As a matter of fact, in North Carolina, less than 2,000 families are listed in the Century Farm Family Program, which has been around since the 1970s. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Century Farm Program.

Monroe Clayton Sr.

Monroe Clayton Sr. was born into slavery in 1862. By the year of his death in 1945, Clayton had established a nearly 300-acre farm that produced tobacco, corn, wheat, sugar cane, vegetables and fruit in Person County. His success also planted seeds of hope and the importance of optimism, hard work and education that continue to be at the foundation of this Century Farm Family.

“My grandfather believed in America and what it had to offer,” said Joan Clayton-Davis, current manager along with other family members. “America offered free public education, opportunity, a way to provide for yourself and to be independent.”

Clayton-Davis did not meet her grandfather, he died two years before she was born. She did grow up in a house with her grandmother who helped instill in her Clayton family values. These values included hard work. “Tobacco farming is especially labor intensive,” said Clayton-Davis, “To say we worked hard would be an understatement. And although we did have tractors and other farm equipment, the farm and our house did not get electricity until 1956.”

Monroe Clayton Sr. had seven children with his first wife, Flora, who passed away. Clayton remarried to Sarah and they had 13 children together. The farm workforce over the years also included son Percy Clayton, his wife and four children; son, Burley Clayton Sr., his wife and 11 children; and son, Austin Clayton, his wife and two children.

Tobacco farming at Clayton Farm

During the 1950 and 60s, Clayton-Davis grew up with 17 of her cousins at the family farm. Many members of this close-knit family grew up and grew away from the family farm, however, the Clayton values of hard work, civic involvement and education carried with them.

To help teach the children farm business operations, teen family members were given a section of land, usually about an acre, to grow corn and sell it to raise money for school supplies and other items. “I can remember pulling 60 dozen ears of corn early in the morning to sell to the grocery store,” said Clayton-Davis.

“Another year, the farm worked with the USDA Extension Service to test growing cucumbers on about a quarter acre. The farm produced so many that the family agreed to never grow more than enough for a home garden again,” she added.

Although the farm provided it’s own type of education, all Clayton children were encouraged to complete school. When no high school was available for the children to attend because of the color of their skin, the children were sent to Mary Potter Academy Boarding School in Oxford to prepare for college.

Daughter, Julia P. Clayton received training to become a teacher and taught elementary school from 1917 to 1933 in Person County to educate rural children.

Burley Clayton Sr. (left) and Burley Clayton Jr. (right)

Burley Clayton Jr. received an MBA from N.C. Central University in Durham. At least 15 members of the Clayton family have graduated with degrees from N.C. Central University.

Three third-generation Claytons have become the first African Americans to mark achievements in their selected field of work.

Joyce Clayton Nichols became the first woman and first African American to become a physician assistant in America. Linda A. Clayton, M.D., MPH, became the first African American woman to become a fully trained surgical gynecologic oncologist in America. Burley Clayton Jr. became the first African American to be director of purchasing and procurement of Durham County.

Eva Clayton, wife of T.T. Clayton, a grandson of Monroe Clayton Sr., became the first African American woman to represent North Carolina in the U.S. House Representatives.

Thurman Clayton Sr.

In 1992, the farm transitioned from labor-intensive tobacco production to the establishment of a forestry operation that included a loblolly pine plantation of more than 100 acres and management of hardwood forested areas of the farm. In 2015, the farm’s new N.C. Forest Service Management plan was approved.

“The family’s goal was to keep this land in the family and to use it agriculturally. The forest management plan allows us to do this and not have the labor needs that tobacco and other crops require,” said Clayton-Davis.

In 2019, 100 years from the time that Monroe Clayton Sr. expanded his current farm operation from 200 to almost 300 acres, the Clayton Family Farm became a Century Farm Family.

“Maintaining the farm is a measure of fulfilling my grandfather’s wish of being independent,” said Clayton-Davis. “He always wanted to take advantage of everything America had to offer such as free public education, home ownership and providing for yourself. He believed that you have to be optimistic, hard working and participate even when there are barriers. We were always encouraged to be civically engaged and participate in our communities.”

Joan Clayton-Davis with husband, Biars Davis attending the Tennessee State University College of Agriculture New Farmer Academy

Clayton-Davis remains excited about the future of the farm, and the fourth generation that will ultimately inherit this family treasure. Clayton-Davis continues her family’s emphasis on continuing education, she just completed her beginner farming certification at the University of Tennessee. Even though she lives in Nashville, she plans to return for what will be the Clayton family’s first Century Farm reunion at this year’s N.C. State Fair.