Born on October 6, 1917, Fannie Lou was the last of twenty children born to her parents, James and Lou Ella Townsend. Residing in Montgomery County, Mississippi, her parents worked as sharecroppers. When she was two years old, her family moved to Sunflower County, Mississippi, where they continued to sharecrop. They labored on the plantation of W.D. Marlowe; the plantation was near Ruleville, Mississippi. At the age of six years old, she would join her parents and siblings in picking cotton. Even though a bout with polio left her physically handicapped, she, by the age of thirteen, picked between two hundred to three hundred pounds of cotton every day.
An extremely bright girl, she loved to learn and read. From 1924 to 1930, Fannie Lou was able to attend the one-room schoolhouse that children of sharecroppers attended during the winters, when the picking season was over. Her time of being formally educated ended when she was twelve years old because she had to assist in taking care of her parents.
Fannie Lou was able to further develop her learning by participating in the classes and study time at the church in which she was a member. In 1944, Marlowe learned that she was literate and she was promoted to be the time and record keeper on the plantation. During this time, she was being courted by Perry “Pap” Hamer, a tractor driver on the plantation. Marrying in 1945, the Hamer couple continued to labor on the Marlowe plantation until 1963.