James Leonard Farmer, Sr., believed to be the first black man in Texas to have a Ph.D., was born on June 12, 1886, in Kingstree, South Carolina, the son of Carolina and Lorena (Wilson) Farmer. His parents were former slaves. He attended grade school in Pearson, Georgia, and then studied at Cookman Institute in Daytona Beach, Florida, before going to Boston University, where he received B.A. and S.T.B. degrees. He received the Ph.D from Boston University in 1918. He also studied at Harvard in 1916–17 and received an honorary doctorate in 1929 from Gammon Theological Seminary, Atlanta, Georgia.
Farmer was a deacon in the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1917 and after college served as pastor of black churches in Texarkana and Galveston. He taught philosophy and religion and also served in administrative capacities at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas (1919–20, 1933–38); Rust College, Holly Springs, Mississippi (1920–25); Samuel Huston (now Huston-Tillotson) College, Austin, Texas (1925–30, 1946–56); Gammon Theological Seminary (1930–33); and Howard University, Washington, D.C. (1938–46). From 1932 to 1956 he was also dean of Gulfside Summer School of Ministerial Training in Mississippi. He was versed in Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, French, and German; he was a poet and the author of two books, The Coming of Peace and the Prince of Peace (1943) and John and Jesus in Their Day and Ours (1956). He wrote biblical criticism, articles for secular magazines, and Sunday school lessons for the Southwestern Christian Advocate (see UNITED METHODIST REPORTER) and contributed several sermons to a book, Pulpit Eloquence (1939).
Farmer married Pearl Marion Houston on September 2, 1917. They had three children. One, James Leonard Farmer, Jr., became a civil rights leader and founder of the Congress of Racial Equality. Farmer was a Mason, a Republican, and a member of Omega Psi Phi. He died in Washington, D.C., on May 14, 1961. In 1997 a Texas state historical marker was dedicated on the campus of Wiley College in Marshall, Texas.