1891, the Year of the African American Woman Postmaster: Elinora Wilhelmina Farmer Walden of Strieby, Randolph County, North Carolina

Recently, I saw a Fb post noting that Minnie Cox, of Indianola, Mississippi, was the first African American woman postmaster. In searching for information on her, I learned that she was appointed by Benjamin Harrison in January 1891,[1] however, the town of Indianola made her life difficult, complete with death threats. Despite these difficulties, Cox was reappointed by McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt. During her third term, as anti-black attitudes increased and her situation became increasingly dangerous, Cox attempted to resign. Teddy Roosevelt, who was now the President, refused her resignation, preferring to close the post office and reroute the mail to a different town rather than cave to the bigotry of Indianola.  Cox left town for her own safety. When the post office reopened, Cox did not return as the postmaster. She did return to Indianola, but never again as postmaster.[2] The story was compelling, but I was certain she was not the only African American woman postmaster from the time period. I had to check, but I knew that Elinora W. (Farmer) Walden had been postmaster in Strieby, Randolph County, North Carolina, in the same time period. I quickly looked it up.

I was right. Elinora Walden had been appointed in the same time period. In fact, she was appointed in May 1891, the same year as Minnie Cox.[3] Minnie may have been the first, but clearly President Harrison was willing to appoint others, like Elinora.

Elinora Wilhelmina Farmer Walden

Elinora Wilhelmina Farmer was born in New Brunswick, Middlesex County, New Jersey 28 November 1857,[4] to John A. and Catherine Farmer.[5] Elinora was the oldest of seven siblings; she had one brother and five sisters. At this time, nothing is known about the specifics of her education, however, she went to Randolph County (NC) as a teacher indicating she probably had some formal training. In addition, she had been involved in a school program in New Brunswick.

1870 census john farmer family new brunswick nj
1870 Census, John Farmer Family, including daughters, Elinora and Phoebe Farmer, Newark, New Jersey

Elinora and her family were very likely members at historic Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded in New Brunswick in 1827.[6] It was here that she probably met New Brunswick Theological Seminarian, (Alfred) Islay Walden.[7] Walden preached at the church at least occasionally, including just before his graduation at the end of June 1879.[8] Also, Elinora and her sister, Phoebe,[9] were involved apparently at the Students’ Mission, that Islay ran during his years at the seminary (1877-1879). They were most likely the E. Farmer and P. Farmer mentioned in an article about the mission that appeared in the New Brunswick Daily Times.[10]

The relationship with Walden very likely included writing letters (none of which are known to still exist) after he returned to southwestern Randolph County, in 1879, as a missionary with the American Missionary Association (AMA).[11] In 1880, Walden established the First Congregational Church of Randolph County and started a school in an area of the Uwharrie Mountains, called Hill Town because of the large number of Hill families living there, including Walden’s sister. He was also charged with leading a church called Salem, about eight miles away.[12] Having a partner for his life and mission must certainly have seemed appealing, because Walden returned to New Jersey in 1881 and married Elinora.[13] Elinora returned with Walden to Randolph County, becoming the Principal and primary teacher of the school. In addition to the typical academic subjects, Elinora worked with the youth, helping to develop their spiritual and prayer life.

old strieby church w people
Original Strieby Church Building, Randolph County, North Carolina

In late 1882, or early 1883, Walden petitioned the federal government for a new post office to be placed in the community of Hill Town, which by then also had a general store. The post office would eliminate the long trip to the Lassiter’s Mill Post Office that had been serving the community. He also proposed that the new post office be known as “Strieby,” after the Rev. Dr. Strieby, Corresponding Secretary of the AMA, whom Walden admired.[14] The Post Office was established in 1883; Walden was the first Postmaster, appointed 31 May 1883. No longer known as Hill Town, the community would henceforth be known as Strieby, including the church and school, which became Strieby Congregational Church and School.

Walden’s tenure was short. The following 2 February 1884, he died from acute Bronchiteis (more likely pneumonia).[15] Elinora was widowed, in charge of the school, but the Rev. Zachariah Simmons came from Salem Church to be the pastor. Also coming to help her with the teaching was Henry Ruffin Walden, a cousin from neighboring Moore County and a student at Hampton College in the Normal program.[16] Though several years her junior, Elinora and Henry would marry on 13 December 1888.[17]  Henry would finish his studies at Hampton and return to Strieby to help Elinora with the teaching.

In 1890, Elinora’s sister Phoebe married Harris Dunson,[18] who lived in the nearby Lassiter Mill community, about three miles away, situated along the Uwharrie River. It seems likely that Phoebe helped with the school, which may have been the reason she came to Randolph County. She probably came to help her sister after the death of Islay Walden.

appointment of elinora w. walden as postmaster
Appointment of Elinora W. Walden as Postmaster, Strieby, Randolph County, North Carolina, 7 May 1891

On 7 May 1891, Elinora was appointed Postmaster at Strieby.[19] In a strange replay of the tenure of Islay Walden, Elinora died in February of 1892.[20] Having no children, Henry, as Administrator of her estate, distributed $400 to her sister, Phoebe Dunson.[21] She was buried in Strieby Church Cemetery alongside her first husband, Islay Walden.

figure 31-eleanora walden gravestone
Gravemarker of Elinora W. Walden, Strieby Church Cemetery, Randolph County, North Carolina. Photo by Margo Lee Williams

Elinora’s death was considered a terrible loss to the community, especially because a secondary school at Strieby, called Garfield Academy, with Elinora as Headmistress, seems to have been abandoned. The academy would have eliminated the necessity for students to leave home to attend boarding schools in order to further their education.  With Elinora’s death the secondary school was discontinued. There’s no written record this researcher has found to date that explains why.[22]

Henry Ruffin Walden who was teaching at Salem School, returned to Strieby to take over the School. Eventually, he would remarry. He married a teacher, Theodosia Hargraves,[23] who did not come from Randolph County. Henry and Theodosia would leave Strieby after a few years. Like his cousin, Islay, Henry would go on to become a Congregational minister, serving churches in Charlotte and High Point,[24] before dying in Winston Salem.[25]

A Final Thought

It Is remarkable that at a time when Jim Crow laws were becoming more prominent, when women and people of color could not vote, at least these two women, Minnie Cox and Elinora Walden were trusted with the authority of being Postmaster of their local post offices. I can’t help but suspect there were others whose names have been lost to history, but whose stories need to be told.

References

[1] U.S., Appointments of U. S. Postmasters, 1832-1971 [database on-line]. Minnie M. Cox, appointed 16 Jan 1891, Indianola, Sunflower, Mississippi. Record of Appointment of Postmasters, 1832-1971 Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[2] Boyd, D. and Chen, K. (2014). Minnie M Cox: A Postmaster’s Story. The History and Experience of African Americans in America’s Postal Service. Retrieved from: Smithsonian National Postal Museum

[3] U.S., Appointments of U. S. Postmasters, 1832-1971 [database on-line]. Elinora W. Walden, appointed 7 May 1891, Strieby, Randolph, North Carolina. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[4] New Jersey, Births and Christenings Index, 1660-1931 [Database on-line]. Name: Farmer, Gender: Female; Father: John Farmer. Date: 28 Nov 1857, New Brunswick, Middlesex Co., New Jersey. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[5] 1870 US Federal Census; Census Place: Newark Ward 2, Essex, New Jersey; John Farmer, head; Elenora Farmer, age 11 [sic]. NARA Roll: M593-879; Page: 167B; Image: 339; Family History Library Film: 552378. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[6] Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church. (2015). Our History: About Us. Retrieved from: Mount Zion AME Church

[7] NBTS Anti-Racism Transformation Team. (25 February 2016). Slavery, Justice, and New Brunswick Theological Seminary: First African American Graduates. New Brunswick Theological Seminary. Retrieved from: New Brunswick Theological Seminary

[8] The Daily Times. (30 June 1879). City Matters. (New Brunswick, NJ), 3. Retrieved from:New Brunswick Free Public Library

[9] 1870 US Federal Census; Census Place: Newark Ward 2, Essex, New Jersey; John A. Farmer, head; Phebe A. Farmer, age 4. NARA Roll: M593-879; Page: 167B; Image: 339; Family History Library Film: 552378. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[10] The Daily Times. (3 January 1879 & 4 January 1879). Shoes for the Poor. (New Brunswick, NJ), 3. Retrieved from: New Brunswick Free Public Library

[11] 1880 US Federal Census; Census Place: Union, Randolph, North Carolina; Islay Walden, Boarder. NARA Roll: 978; Family History Film: 1254978; Page: 196C; Enumeration District: 224; Image: 0683. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[12] Williams, M. L. (2016). Return to Hill Town. From Hill Town to Strieby: Education and the American Missionary Association in the Uwharrie “Back Country” of Randolph County, North Carolina (Crofton, KY: Backintyme Publishing) pp. 81-88.

[13] New Jersey, Marriage Records, 1670-1965 [Database on-line]. Alfred I. Walden and Elenor W. Farmer, married: 18 May 1881, New Brunswick, Middlesex, New Jersey. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[14] Williams, M. L. (2016). Return to Hill Town. From Hill Town to Strieby: Education and the American Missionary Association in the Uwharrie “Back Country” of Randolph County, North Carolina (Crofton, KY: Backintyme Publishing) pp. 90-91.

[15] National Council. (1885). Vital Statistics.  The Congregational Yearbook, 1885. (Boston: Congregational Publishing Society) Volume 7:37. Retrieved from: Google Books

[16] Williams, M. L. (2016). A Widow Carries On. From Hill Town to Strieby: Education and the American Missionary Association in the Uwharrie “Back Country” of Randolph County, North Carolina (Crofton, KY: Backintyme Publishing) pp. 93-94.

[17] North Carolina, Marriage Records, 1741-2011 [Database on-line]. H. R. Walden and Eleanor W. Walden, married: 13 Dec 1888, Randolph County, North Carolina. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[18] North Carolina, Marriage Records, 1741-2011 [Database on-line]. Harris Dunson and Phoebe Farmer, married 3 Apr 1890, Randolph County, North Carolina. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[19] U.S., Appointments of U. S. Postmasters, 1832-1971 [database on-line]. Elinora W. Walden, appointed 7 May 1891, Strieby, Randolph, North Carolina. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[20] American Missionary Association (AMA). (1892). Obituary: Mrs. Henry R. Walden. The American Missionary, 46(3):91. Retrieved from: Google Books

[21] North Carolina, Wills and Probate Records, 1665-1998 [Database on-line]. Administrators Bonds, Henry R. Walden, Administrator; Estate of Elinora W. Walden. Probate date: 17 Feb 1892, Randolph County Court. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[22] Williams, M. L. (2016). A Widow Carries On. From Hill Town to Strieby: Education and the American Missionary Association in the Uwharrie “Back Country” of Randolph County, North Carolina (Crofton, KY: Backintyme Publishing) pp. 96.

[23] North Carolina, Marriage Records, 1741-2011 [Database on-line]. Henry R. Walden and Theodosia E. Hargrave, married:11 Sep 1898, Randolph County. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[24] Williams, M. L. (2016). A Widow Carries On. From Hill Town to Strieby: Education and the American Missionary Association in the Uwharrie “Back Country” of Randolph County, North Carolina (Crofton, KY: Backintyme Publishing) pp. 96-98.

[25] North Carolina, Death Certificates, 1909-1976 [Database on-line]. Rev. Henry Ruffin Walden, date of death: 20 Jan 1951. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

 

4 thoughts on “1891, the Year of the African American Woman Postmaster: Elinora Wilhelmina Farmer Walden of Strieby, Randolph County, North Carolina”

    1. Thank you. Yes, it was tragic that both Islay and Elinora died so young. Yet, they left a lasting legacy with the school which functioned into the 1920s when the Public School system took over. The church functioned as a regular place of worship into this century, but now holds only special services, such as the annual Homecoming service and family funerals.

      Liked by 2 people

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