Strieby is the name of an area and church in Union Township, in southwestern Randolph County, North Carolina. It is part of the area and church where my mother’s maternal family has lived and worshiped for over two hundred years. Although I did not grow up visiting Strieby, after having learned about its rich history and my family’s roots there, I became concerned that the history was being lost, especially as older family/community members died. Thus, over the years I have made use of various avenues and vehicles for preserving and uplifting the history of Strieby, the church, and the families associated with it.
Just this past August 2021, Strieby Church was awarded the designation as a Literary Landmark, by United for Libraries (a division of the American Library Association), in recognition of the Rev. Islay Walden, its founding minister, a noted nineteenth century poet, dubbed the “Blind Poet of North Carolina” by Arthur Schomburg. Born enslaved in Randolph County, North Carolina, Islay walked to Washington, D. C. in search of an education and help for his near-blindness, most likely congenital cataracts. He received a scholarship to attend Howard University, but he still needed money for his personal needs. In 1872 (with revisions in 1873), he published Miscellaneous Poems Which the Author Desires to Dedicate to the Cause of Education and Humanity. After graduating from Howard, he received another scholarship to attend New Brunswick Theological Seminary, in New Jersey. Again, he published a small volume of poems called, Walden’s Sacred Poems with a Sketch of His Life, in 1877. After graduation and ordination in 1879, he returned to Randolph County where he founded Promised Land Congregational Church and School, renamed Strieby Congregational Church and School, in 1883, after he successfully petitioned the government for a post office for the Strieby community. He died on 2 February 1884 and was buried in Strieby Church Cemetery. According to the United for Libraries website, this is only the second Literary Landmark awarded in North Carolina. The marker will be dedicated on 5 February 2022.
Where did I learn about Literary Landmarks? It is not a widely known national program. I learned about it when a library in the neighborhood where I grew up, dedicated to Langston Hughes and the home of the Black Heritage Reference Center of Queens County, was awarded its Literary Landmark status in 2013. I hoped to do the same, but it was only this year that I was able to work with other family members, descendants of the church’s founding members, and two community partners, Magnolia 23 Restaurant and Strieby Wood, LLC to successfully apply for Literary Landmark status for Strieby Congregational Church, School and Cemetery Cultural Heritage Site in honor of Islay Walden. However, this was not my first effort to preserve the history of this site.
Randolph County Cultural Heritage Site
The first serious effort to preserve Strieby’s history was applying for Cultural Heritage Site status. Randolph County is unusual because it recognizes historical sites for their culturally significance regardless of whether any original, historical structures which had been associated with the site still exist or not. Thus, Strieby, whose original frame church building would have qualified for Historic Landmark designation, was demolished when it became unsafe in the early 1970s and was replaced by a new brick building, was able to qualify for Cultural Heritage Site designation. The site was awarded Cultural Heritage Site status in September 2014.
From Hill Town to Strieby: Education and the American Missionary Association in the Uwharrie “Back Country” of Randolph County, North Carolina (Backintyme Publishing)
The extensive research necessary to ensure a successful application for Cultural Heritage Site status, provided a strong basis for a book on the history of the community of Strieby that grew up around the church and school. The book focused on the educational achievements of the school during its forty years serving the community that grew up around Strieby Church. The book also included four generation summaries of the two principal founding families, the Hills and the Lassiters. In addition, it included the names and relationships of all those buried in the cemetery with grave markers as well as the names of about 35 individuals who were buried there with no grave markers, but whose internments were identified from death certificates. The book was published in 2016.
Born Missionary: The Islay Walden Story (Margo Lee Williams, Personal Prologue)
While researching Strieby’s history, for the book, From Hill Town to Strieby, I realized there was much more to Islay Walden’s background than is normally reported. It seemed a natural progression to go from writing about the history of the church and school, to writing about the story of Islay Walden, founding pastor and teacher. While I recognize his contribution as a nineteenth century, formerly enslaved, African American man to the field of poetry, I realized through my research that Islay Walden’s focus was education and spiritual development. Thus, the phrase used to describe him in an obituary, “Born Missionary,” became my title for the book that came out in April 2021.
North Carolina State Cemetery Survey
North Carolina has a state initiative through the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources aimed at identifying and surveying every cemetery in North Carolina, whether public, private, church owned, municipal, slave, Native American, or whatever. Surveys can be undertaken by local governments, private groups, or individuals. One can add information or pictures, or whatever, to the file that provides any important background information on the cemetery and the people buried there. I was able to complete and submit the survey for Strieby Church Cemetery this past summer, 2021.
North Carolina State Highway Marker
Sadly, not every effort to preserve the history of Strieby and Islay Walden has been successful. I applied to the State Highway Marker program in 2016 for a marker for Islay Walden. It was denied. I was able to gather additional information and reapplied in 2018. Unfortunately, it met the same fate. The committee reportedly denied the application because they felt that Islay Walden, though widely recognized for his poetry, had only regional, local significance. Since only two attempts are permitted, this avenue for preservation of Islay Walden’s story and that of Strieby is no longer viable. It was this dismissal that spurred me to seek more earnestly the Literary Landmark marker for Islay Walden.