Lawyer-Legislator Leo Daughtry Adds “Author” To His Resume

Leo, a white man with white hair and brown glasses, wears a pink and pale blue plaid shirt and blue button-down sweater.Leo Daughtry made his name as a lawyer in Johnston County and legislator in the North Carolina General Assembly, where he served in the House of Representatives from 1993 to 2016.

And now, at 83 years of age, he has inserted a new entry into his resume: author. His debut novel, “Talmadge Farm,” will be unveiled on June 4. The work – historical in nature – draws from Daughtry’s life experiences growing up in rural eastern North Carolina in the 1950s.

His experiences as a lawyer and legislator also figure in the book, as do his memories of hunting, fishing and tobacco farming. Growing up in Sampson County, he heard a thing or two about moonshine, and learned a thing or two about making money off retreaded tires, and that’s in there too.

The story centers on the lives of the three families. The Talmadge family, as the title indicates, owns the farm and call the shots in the fictional universe of Hobbsfield and Jefferson County. The Sanders family and the Craddock family, meanwhile, own virtually nothing; they toil through life on a meager sharecroppers’ existence hoping for better lives. The Sanders family is Black, the Craddock family is white, and both families are poor and treated poorly.

“Talmadge Farm” follows a timeline from primarily 1957 to 1970, during which Daughtry graduated from Hobbton High School (1958), Wake Forest University (1962) and Wake Forest University School of Law (1965). He served in the U.S. Air Force from 1966 to 1970. Through the lens of this perspective, Daughtry covers the canvas with the informed backdrop of one who has lived through the changing times about which he writes, beginning with his characters.

“I tried to make the characters out of people that I grew up with and knew,” Daughtry said. “When I went to school – grammar school and high school – I was in the country, and at least half of the kids in my class were sharecroppers’ children. When we were going to school, it was segregated, so the school bus would stop and pick us up. Then the Black sharecroppers’ kids, who lived maybe 500 yards down the road, their school bus would stop and pick up them and they would go to their school. But one thing they all had in common: if you were a sharecroppers’ child, you didn’t have any money.

“They were all living in tough times, and they all wanted to work in the summer and get paid so they could buy some clothes in the fall with whatever they made, $100, maybe $150, all summer. I knew the Black sharecroppers as well as the white sharecroppers. The Black sharecroppers were a little bit older than me, and they were smarter than I was and they were better athletes. But they were precluded from being part of the community; they had their own church, they had their own school, and I don’t remember if they had a restaurant.”

Or a way out.

“With so many of the Black sharecroppers, all of those children, they wanted to go into the Army. They thought that was their way out. It was either that or go up north, which they didn’t want to do because they didn’t know where to go. Go to New Jersey? That was not in the cards. Or get a job in the car factory, but they didn’t know how to do it.

“But they did know how to sign up with the Army. And a lot of them, because we were lucky enough to have Fort Bragg, wanted to be in the 82nd Airborne so they could go to Fort Bragg and come home. Unfortunately, that’s when Vietnam came along and so many of them were killed.”

This is a cover image for Leo Daughtry's book. The title and his name appear in white with the words "a novel" below it. The image depicts a man dressed in plaid and a hat and carrying a gun walking in a cornfield with a dog behind him and birds flying above his head and towards white clouds in a blue sky.

The goal of his book, Daughtry said, was to portray the sharecroppers as he remembered them.

“None of them had electricity, and none of them had a phone. That’s where I grew up. And then as time moved from say 1955 into the 1960s, you began to see the consolidation of farms, so they could move the tobacco allotments from one farm to another farm. The farms got a lot bigger, and the tenant farmer who had five acres could not make it.

“And then people invented bulk barns, and they invented a better way to crop tobacco and plant tobacco. Things began to get mechanized in the beginning of the ‘60s, and what came with that were the migrant workers coming up from Florida. It became clear that the tenant farmer couldn’t compete and had to leave.”

Daughtry’s legislative experience figured into the story as well.

“I think the idea is that we need to have some laws that protect people from harm that could easily happen to them in bad situations,” Daughtry said. “I used to run a tobacco warehouse back around 1969 or 1970 when I first got back from the Army. Some man came into the warehouse and said, ‘There’s a man out here, and he’s said he has run away and he wants to have a place to stay.’ I didn’t know exactly what they were talking about, but what had happened was that he had escaped from the crew chief and was scared to death.

“He was from somewhere in Florida. It was really kind of pitiful. I do think the Salvation Army came and got him. But there are plenty of cases where migrants were treated terribly when they first started coming here. That was before the Mexicans came. These are (Black) people coming from Florida up the coast, and they stopped in South Carolina and picked vegetables, came to Charleston, then came up here and on to Virginia.”

An affinity for guns and the social aspects of hunting also make their way into the story as Daughtry pays homage to some of his earliest memories.

“My Uncle Isom and I, when I was like 13, 14, 15, we would go squirrel hunting, and we would go rabbit hunting and then quail hunting. Those were the three things that I remember about hunting, and then in the spring we fished in the local ponds.

“The reason there were so many ponds, and I think Lauch Faircloth started this, there was this program where the farmers were given money to dig irrigation ponds because they thought that would help them grow crops. Most of the farmers took advantage of it and my dad did too, so we had a pond, and we would go fishing in it.”

Daughtry thought about the book for about 10 years before putting pen to paper and developing an outline. He enlisted the services of J.J. Holshouser of Charlotte and Loren Stephens of Write Wisdom who collaborated with him writing his story and getting it ready for publication.

The acknowledgments page also includes additional names of individuals who have assisted with bringing the book to fruition, including daughters Dana Riley and Kelly Daughtry and his wife, Helen.

“Talmadge Farm” is dedicated to Leo Daughtry’s parents, to whom he writes:

“To my parents, Namon and Catholeen, whose love and belief in me nourished and sustained me. They are the foundation of any achievements I have accomplished in life.”

“Talmadge Farm” is published by Story Merchant Books. Access additional information here.

Russell Rawlings is director of external affairs and communications for the North Carolina Bar Association.