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#52Ancestors – At worship: The Rev. Islay Walden and the founding of Strieby Congregational Church

One hundred fifty years ago, on 2 July, Islay Walden, after graduating from the New Brunswick Theological Seminary, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, was ordained in the Second Reformed Church of New Brunswick (Reformed Church of America). By the end of the week he had left New Brunswick and was on his way back to North Carolina as a Congregational minister under the auspices of the American Missionary Association (AMA).[1]  By November 1879, he was back in Randolph County, North Carolina, where he had grown, having moved in with his sister, Sarah, and her family.[2] The area where they lived was known as Hill Town, because so many Hill family members lived in the small community in the Uwharrie Mountain area of southwestern Randolph County.[3]

Islay Walden Oval

When Islay Walden returned to the Lassiter’s Mill postal area of southwestern Randolph County, North Carolina, he established a Congregational church and “common school,” as AMA one or two teacher schools were called, in an area in the Uwharrie Mountains called “Hill Town.” It is likely that he ultimately decided to take this post because it was in the same community where his sister, Sarah (Callicutt/Walden) Hill, wife of Emsley Hill, lived.

The church reportedly was called first, “Promised Land Church.” According to Aveus “Ave” Lassiter Edmondson, in an article that appeared in Asheboro Magazine in 2011, Priscilla Hill (affectionately known as “Granny Prissy”), Emsley Hill’s mother, helped build the brush arbor that was used as this early meeting place.[4] Walden’s job as AMA missionary, however, was to plant a permanent Congregational church for the community. This church was called the First Congregational Church of Randolph County.[5] DeBoer (2015) noted that “If a church in the South is named First Congregational and was founded during Reconstruction, it is generally a predominantly black church started by the AMA.”[6]   Walden’s church would eventually be named Strieby Congregational Church and School, after the Rev. Dr. Strieby, the same prominent Congregational minister and Corresponding Secretary of the AMA who had attended his ordination.[7] Kate Lassiter Jones believed that it was Rev. Strieby who helped Walden found the church, but in fact it was the Rev. Joseph Roy, the Field Superintendent, who assisted.

In November 1879, Rev. Joseph Roy reported in The American Missionary, the magazine of the AMA, on Islay’s early efforts:

“The Field Superintendent assisted [Rev. Islay Walden] in organizing a Congregational Church of thirty members.”  Roy stated that a man in Hill Town offered “three acres of land and timber in the tree for all the lumber needed for a church school-house, and that man was an ex-slave.”[8]

It is not clear to whom he was referring since the Hill, Lassiter, Andy other families living in the area were primarily free families dating back before 1850.

In May 1880, Walden, as agent for the AMA, purchased a six-acre plot of land from a neighboring white family, Addison and Cornelia Lassiter, on which the church was built.[9] According to Kate Lassiter Jones, who grew up worshiping at Strieby:

“Men and women gathered from every direction to plan for the building. A two-wheeled ox cart hauled six huge rocks for the foundation. Logs, lumber and service were given. The weather boarding for the 60’x30’ building was finished by hand, mostly by our late Uncle Julius Hill.”[10]

Strieby Church original deed
Deed for Original First Congregational Church of Randolph County, North Carolina Property

Dr. Roy noted that he met with three committees, one from Hill Town, one from what would become Salem Church, in Concord Township about eight miles away, and one from Troy, in neighboring Montgomery County, where the AMA was in the process of establishing Peabody Academy. At this point the AMA did not have an ordained preacher for each location so it was decided there would be a circuit.

“So we organized a circuit for Brother Walden, one Sabbath at Troy and the other at Salem Church and Hill Town, with one sermon at each place. The Quakers promise a school at Salem. A public school will serve Hill Town for the present, and a competent teacher must be secured for the Academy.”[11]

Strieby Church tax plat
Strieby Church Tax Plat – Parcel 295967

The Church members at Hill Town quickly became involved in the wider life of the Congregational Church and the American Missionary Association. A report of the 1880 Conference held at Dudley, N.C., noted that representatives traveled 130 miles to attend. In describing the progress of the church at Hill Town, it said, “A gracious revival and a meeting-house under way are the fruits of the first six months of the life of this church.”[12]

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

The following year, in 1881, the report again mentioned Islay and others from the congregation:[13]

“Rev. Islay Walden and his delegate, Deacon Potter, together with three others, came fifty miles in a one-horse wagon to attend the Conference. One of the party, Mrs. Hill, now a widow, has had twelve children, forty grand-children and twelve great-grand-children. She had never seen the (train) cars nor heard a railroad whistle till she came to the Conference. …The sermon Friday night was by Rev. Islay Walden; text, the first Psalm.”

The “Mrs. Hill,” referenced here was most likely “Granny Prissy,” Priscilla (Mahockly) Hill, the matriarch of the Hill family of Hill Town in southwestern Randolph County. “Deacon Potter” could have been Thomas Potter, her son-in-law, married to her daughter Mary Jane Hill, or Thomas’ brother, Ira Potter, married to daughter Charity Hill.

Priscilla Mahockley Hill
Priscilla Mahockley Hill, 1792-1911

Just three years later, on 2 February 1884, at the young age of 40, The American Missionary reported Islay’s death and eulogized him:[14]

“… He rallied the people, developed a village with school-house and church, secured a post-office and became postmaster. Here he labored four years, blessed with revivals, and was honored by the people, black and white. His wife an educated and judicious missionary teacher was of great assistance to him in all his work …”

Islay was buried in the Strieby Church Cemetery.

Islay Walden gravestone
Gravestone of the Rev. Islay Walden, 2 February 1884, Strieby Church Cemetery

For the next 120 years, Strieby Church has served as the spiritual and cultural center for the Hill families and other families of color living in southwestern Randolph County. As time went on and the older community members died, many descendants of those families, moved away from the Strieby community, whether to other parts of Randolph County, other parts of North Carolina, or other parts of the country. However, many also return to Randolph County on the fourth Sunday of August for the annual Homecoming Service. In addition, many descendants continue to bury their loved ones in the church cemetery next to their ancestors whose lives were shaped and nourished by their worship at Strieby.[15]

Strieby Church with sign and bell tower 07-05-2014
Current Strieby Congregational United Church of Christ, Randolph County, North Carolina


[1] This account is based on the chapter, “Return to Hill Town,” in my book, 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, 2016), pp. 81-92.

[2] 1880 US Federal Census; Census Place: Union, Randolph, North Carolina; Roll: 978; Family History Film: 1254978; Page: 196C; Enumeration District: 224; Image: 0683. Emsley Hill, head; Islay Walden, boarder. Retrieved from:

[3] Williams, M. L. (2016). Return to Hill Town. In, 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. 81-92.

[4] Grant, M. (2011). Strieby? Never Heard of It. Asheboro Magazine, 1(11), 56-58. Retrieved from: Asheboro Magazine On-line

[5] Addison and Cornelia Lassiter to H. W. Hubbard, (22 May 1880). Randolph County, North Carolina Deed Book. 42:199.

[6] DeBoer, C. M. (2015). Blacks and the American Missionary Association. Hidden Histories in the United Church of Christ (Volume I). Retrieved from:

[7] Roy, J. L. (1879). The Freedmen. The American Missionary. Volume 33(11):334-335. The American Missionary

[8] Roy, J. L. (1879). The Freedmen. The American Missionary. Volume 33(11):334-335. The American Missionary

[9] Addison and Cornelia Lassiter to H. W. Hubbard, Islay Walden, Agent. (22 May 1880). Randolph County, North Carolina Deed Book. 42:199.

[10] Jones, K. L. (1972). History of the Strieby Congregational United Church of Christ. Souvenir Journal for the Dedication of the New Church Building: Strieby Congregational United Church of Christ (Strieby, NC: Strieby Congregational United Church of Christ), p. 2.

[11] Roy, J. L. (1879). The Freedmen. The American Missionary. Volume 33(11):334-335. The American Missionary

[12] American Missionary Association. (1880). Conferences: North Carolina Conference. Annual Report of the American Missionary Association (Volumes 30-39), 34(3), 72. Retrieved from: The American Missionary

[13] American Missionary Association. (1881). Anniversary Reports. The American Missionary Association (Volumes 30-39), 35(7), 211. Retrieved from: The American Missionary

[14] American Missionary Association. (1884). Items from the Field. The American Missionary, Volume 38:51. Retrieved from: The American Missionary

[15] Williams, M. L. (2016). Part V: Strieby Today. 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), 373-390.

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#52Ancestors – My First Road Trip to Randolph County, North Carolina

Perhaps the most significant road trip I’ve taken was the one I took with my mother in 1982. I had been doing genealogy for several years when I made contact with Kate Lassiter Jones, my maternal cousin, a descendant of Miles Lassiter, my 4th great grandfather, from Randolph County, North Carolina. Neither she, nor my mother, nor I had ever heard of one another. When she learned of our relationship, she was as excited as we were and suggested that my mother and I “come on down” to meet our many cousins. It would be an important trip for both my mother and me. My mother spent her first four years of life in Greensboro, North Carolina in neighboring Guilford County. After her mother died in the flu epidemic of 1918, her grandmother, Louise, took my mother and her baby sister to live with family in New Jersey. When her own mother, affectionately known as “Grandma Ellen,” became ill and died a couple of years later, “Mama” Louise, my mother and her sister, Vern went to Asheboro, in Randolph County, to care for Grandma Ellen, but after she died, Louise decided to stay. They stayed another three years before Louise decided to return to New Jersey permanently. My mother was seven years old. She had not been back to North Carolina again until our road trip, 61 years later.[1]

Louse Smitherman Phillips and Elinora Phillips Lee circa 1915
Louise Smitherman Phillips Floyd Ingram & Elinora Phillips Lee, circa 1916.

In September 1982, my mother and I made our pilgrimage to Asheboro and Randolph County. It had been 61 years since my mother had been in North Carolina. She marveled out loud that it was her daughter that was taking her back. She also lamented that my dad, who had   died in April, had not lived to make this trip—a trip he had often said he wanted to make. We had mapped out our route. We would travel south on I-95, past Richmond, Virginia, then south of Petersburg, we would take I-85 through southwestern Virginia, across the North Carolina border. I-85 would take us past the exits for Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, Hillsboro, and Burlington. Once arriving in the Greensboro area, we would look for, and exit onto State 220, headed south. Finally, not far from the business district of Asheboro, we would exit onto State 49, going south toward Charlotte.

Margaret & Margo Williams 1982
Margaret Lee Williams and Margo Lee Williams, Christmas 1982. Photo by Elverna Lee Means.

We were very excited as we drove to meet our cousins, wondering if we would be welcome, if we would have things in common, if all would be congenial. We even made contingency plans – if we did not feel comfortable, we would stay a couple of days (instead of the planned week), make our excuses, and drive out to Asheville, in the Great Smokies.

Once on 49, we were to look for the second crossroads, where we would turn right and then left onto what is now called Lassiter Mill Road. As we made the turns, we passed Science Hill Friends Meeting. I recognized it from the book, Farmer, about the surrounding community known by that name. We were truly in the country as we rode along past farms and woodlands. We began to realize and be amused by the fact that we were now quite a few miles from the city of Asheboro, yet we knew that the postal address was still Asheboro. We would drive along these quiet, rolling country roads for almost half an hour before realizing that we were coming to the crossroads with what is now High Pine Church Road, the road on which Kate lived. As we approached the crossroads, I recognized a house to my left as being the one from the picture sent to me by Carolyn Hager, an historian at the Randolph County Historical Society, the one from the book, Farmer.

Lassiter Family Home, Lassiter Mill Road - 1982
Lassiter Family Home Place, Lassiter Mill Road, Asheboro, R Phoandolph County, NC. Margaret Williams, my mother is standing to the right. Photo by Margo Lee Williams

Driving around the corner onto High Pine Church Road, we were now approaching Kate Jones’ home. As we drove up the driveway, Kate, her husband, George “Ikie” Jones, and a couple of dogs greeted us. “Do we look related?” she asked with a big smile. Then, with hugs and kisses she ushered her new cousins into the house. Actually, we did look related, especially my mom (I look more like my dad’s people). How amazing to see people who looked like my mom after a lifetime of only seeing two people that looked like my mom: her sister, Vern, and me.

Margaret Lee Williams and Kate Lassiter Jones - 1982
Margaret Lee Williams & Kate Lassiter Jones, Asheboro, NC, September 1982. Photo by Margo Lee Williams

Kate was a medium brown color, browner than my mother, her face was oval rather than round like my mother’s, but it was the eyes that surprised me. They had the same shaped eyes. Later, when I met Kate’s brothers and sisters, they were varying shades of brown, some round-faced, others with longer more oval-shaped faces, but they had the same shaped eyes.

Descendants of Miles and Healy Lassiter
Family members, descendants of Miles Lassiter, assembled for a dinner in honor of our visit to Asheboro, North Carolina, September 1982. Photo by Margo Lee Williams.

.Kate  answered my questions enthusiastically, telling who married whom, the names of their children, where they lived. While she didn’t remember having ever heard of our family, or having met my mother, her brother, Will, claimed to have remembered my grandmother, my mother’s mother. Despite that, they knew many of the people and places my mother remembered from her early childhood, including her grandmother Louise’s sister, Adelaide, my 2nd great grandmother Ellen’s other daughter.

Margaret Williams, and Will Lassiter
Margaret Lee Williams & William Josiah Lassiter, “Will,” September 1982. Photo by Margo Lee Williams.

Kate promised to take us to see these places, even to go up to Greensboro, in neighboring Guilford County, to visit the street where my mother had lived briefly as a little girl before her own mother died in the Flu epidemic of 1918, and before moving to New Jersey the first time. The house there was next to North Carolina A & T University, where from her yard, during World War I, she could watch the “Colored” soldiers train. In addition, Kate invited many other cousins to come by the house to meet us. Again, while many of these relatives knew some of my mother’s other cousins (most of whom, like “Grandma” Ellen, were now dead) they were unfamiliar with my mother.

Margaret Williams at A & T University, Greensboro -1982
Margaret Lee Williams at North Carolina A & T University, September 1982. Photo by Margo Lee Williams.

During our stay with Kate, she took us out to see the land. She drove us around the Lassiter Mill area, (part of New Hope Township) along Lassiter Mill Road, pointing out the homes which had belonged to family members. She also drove us along High Pine Church Road, pointing out additional family homes, the fields that they farmed, and areas that they timbered. What I realized was that many of these homes were probably on the land that had been passed down to them by Colier Lassiter, Kate’s grandfather and brother of Nancy (Lassiter) Dunson, my 3rd great grandmother. Later, I asked Kate’s brother Will where the land was that he had bought from my 2nd great grandmother Ellen, daughter of Nancy. He said it was across the road (Lassiter Mill), going toward the Uwharrie River. He said he kept cows on the land.

Ellen Dunson Smitherman Mayo land
The pasture land that originally belonged to “Grandma Ellen,” Ellen (Dunson) Smitherman Mayo.

I was beginning to wish I had been able to be a part of this family during my growing up years. I realized I had missed something special, but I was grateful that I was now being embraced by my newly found cousins. I realized this was the most important road trip I had ever taken. I’m particularly grateful for the many visits we had after that. They are especially precious memories now because they are all gone now, Kate, all her siblings, including her brother Will, her husband “Ikie,” and my mother. I miss them all.


[1] This account is based on Chapter Two, “On the Road to Randolph County,” in my book: Miles Lassiter (circa 1777-1850) An Early African American Quaker from Lassiter Mill, Randolph County, North Carolina: My Research Journey to Home (Palm Coast, FL & Crofton, KY: Backintyme Publishing, 2011)