When Susie Sharp was born, her father was a thirty-year-old failure who had not yet reached bottom. James Merritt Sharp (b. 1877) was the son of a Civil War veteran from New Bethel Township, North Carolina, a yeoman farmer known for his well-tended fields and orchards. A 1930 retrospective newspaper article described the Sharps as “members of a well-known Rockingham County family … good citizens, debt-abhorring and honest … the sort who dignify toil.”1 Jim Sharp grew up in a family that, like many others, existed outside the cash economy, needing money for little beyond sugar and coffee.2 The Sharps were not without broader horizons, however, for Jim Sharp's father was reputedly the only man in the community who subscribed to the Atlanta Constitution.3
Jim Sharp never lost his connection with the land and would be a farmer all his life, no matter what else he did. Nevertheless, despite his rural background—or perhaps because of it—he was motivated from a very young age to get an education. He got it “the hard way, by raising tobacco and 'sending himself' to school.”4 The poverty and turmoil of the post–Civil War years denied him the higher education he longed for, but he did manage to graduate from Whitsett Institute near Gibsonville, North Carolina, where he garnered “all the certificates they offered.”5
At the age of eighteen Jim Sharp was teaching school in Madison Township, not far from the family farm. Having begun in the world of hand-tomouth farming, he had worked his way onto the first rung of a brand-new ladder. Photographs from around this period show an attractive young man with regular features, a firm jaw, prominent ears, a fine profile, and a shock of hair combed to the side. Even as a young man he wore round-rimmed glasses. Showing him in a jacket and tie, regarding the camera with equanimity, his photograph reveals little of the determination within.
There was a story Jim Sharp liked to tell, the story of “Old Frog.” He would