From Hill Town to Strieby

From Hill Town to Strieby: Education and the American Missionary Association in the Uwharrie “Back Country” of Randolph County, North Carolina

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BookCover-front only-enhancedWhen former slave, Islay Walden returned to Southwestern Randolph County, North Carolina in 1879, after graduating from the New Brunswick Theological Seminary, as an ordained minister and missionary of the American Missionary Association, he moved in with his sister and her family in a secluded area in the Uwharrie Mountains, not far from the Lassiter Mill community along the Uwharrie River. Walden was sent to start a church and school for the largely illiterate community of primarily Hill family members. The Hill family in this mountain community was so large, it was known as “Hill Town.” Walden’s church and school would also serve the nearby Lassiter Mill community which, though larger and more diverse, was only marginally more literate. Walden and his wife accomplished much before his untimely death in 1884, including acquiring a US Postal Office for the community and a new name – Strieby. Despite Walden’s death, the church and school continued into the 20th century when it was finally absorbed by the public school system, but not before impacting strongly the spiritual and educational life of this remote community.

From Hill Town to Strieby is Williams’ second book and picks up where her first book about her ancestor Miles Lassiter, an early African American Quaker, left off. In From Hill Town to Strieby, she provides extensive research documentation on the Reconstruction-era community of Hill Town, that would become known as Strieby, and the American Missionary Association affiliated church and school that would serve both Hill Town and Lassiter Mill. She analyzes both communities’ educational improvements by comparing census records, World War I Draft record signatures and reports of grade levels completed in the 1940 census. She provides well-documented four generation genealogical reports of the two principal founding families, the Hills and Lassiters, which include both the families they married into and the families that moved away to other communities around the country. She provides information on the family relationships of those buried in the cemetery and adds an important research contribution by listing the names gleaned from death certificates of those buried in the cemetery, but who have no cemetery marker. She concludes with information about the designation of the Strieby Church, School, and Cemetery property as a Randolph County Cultural Heritage Site.

Winner: 2016 Historical Book Award from the North Carolina Society of Historians; 2016 Marsha M. Greenlee Award for History from the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society; 2017 Gold Award from the Non-Fiction Authors’ Association ; and Finalist in the African American category of the 2017 Next Generation INDIE Book Awards.

Editorial Reviews

“A meticulous history of a predominantly African-American town in the American South. Hill Town, later called Strieby, grew largely out of the antebellum settlement of two families: the Hills and the Lassiters. Edward “Ned” Hill and his wife, Priscilla Mahockly were the founding couple. She was a former slave, and he may have been born a free man but maintained a relationship of some kind with a white family, the Hills. A rural town in central North Carolina, Strieby is of particular historical interest because its existence predates the abolition of slavery and experienced the benefits that followed emancipation. Not only could free African-Americans choose where to live in Strieby, they could also pursue an education. One native of the greater Randolph country took those hard-won gains so seriously, he devoted his life to their fulfillment; the Reverend Alfred Islay Walden, born an illiterate slave, left the area in 1867 to pursue an education, graduated from Howard University and the New Brunswick Theological Seminary, and eventually became a minister, teacher, and accomplished poet. He returned in 1879, founded a church, helped establish a post office, and also started a school with the help of the American Missionary Association, a coalition that brought scholastic knowledge from the North to newly free Southern communities. Williams (Miles Lassiter, 2011) also chronicles the struggles with racism that still persisted during the post–Civil War years. The author’s investigative research is nothing short of astonishing—the book is an encyclopedic fount of information. Not all of the material will capture the interest of a broad audience—a considerable portion of the book catalogs generations of genealogical connections in meticulous detail. However, the principal focus of the study—the town’s historical commitment to education—is of universal appeal, and Williams offers thoughtful commentary on its development. Furthermore, the book brims with old back-and-white photographs that help capture the historical moment. A breathtakingly thorough exploration of a historically significant town.” Kirkus Review, 16 January 2018

A read for those who look for inspiration from the past and want to make a difference today and tomorrow. More than ever, we long to know our past. ‘Where did I come from’ fascinates many of us and for someone like Margo Lee Williams, fascination has become a calling. In her latest work, an exhaustive book about life in the Hilltown/Strieby community in northeastern North Carolina, Williams takes us back to the 1800’s. She introduces us to the hard-working people who focused on family and work and community, all surrounded by faith, making their lives an example for those who embrace the same in today’s world. A read for historians and for genealogists alike. A read for those who look for inspiration from the past and want to make a difference today and tomorrow.” Stephanie Chandler, Non-Fiction Authors’ Association, 28 June 2017

From Hill Town to Strieby by Margo Lee Williams is the community history of a small settlement in the Uwharrie Mountains of central North Carolina. It was a community of Quakers and free African-Americans before the Civil War known as “Hill Town.” There wasn’t necessarily a hill there, but property owners in the 1830s included former slaves Ned and Priscilla Hill. With the founding of the Strieby Church and School in the 1880s, the community became known as “Strieby.” But don’t look for Strieby on any maps, whether old or modern. Strieby never was a real town. Rather, it was a scattered rural community of African-Americans anchored by the church and school. The church and school were one of many created by the American Missionary Association (AMA), founded to support rural churches in the South, its’ mission to free blacks, and preach “deliverance” to slaves. North Carolina did not provide public education to black children until the 20th Century, and then it was the “separate but equal” variety. In the Strieby area, the church school was the only source of education for African-American children. The AMA schools undoubtedly provided similar invaluable services elsewhere. From Hill Town to Strieby is far too detailed to be of interest to most readers who would otherwise be intrigued by such history. If she has not done so already, Williams should do a much shorter version for a magazine or journal using the Strieby school to illustrate the role of the AMA and the church schools to educate African-Americans before the Civil War, during Reconstruction, and thereafter. The detail she provides is immense. From Hill Town to Strieby is incredibly researched and documented. It includes 200 pages of genealogy, mostly of those people buried in the Strieby church cemetery; photographs, both historical and more recent photos of historical sites; and a long list of sources. All genealogists face challenges, and African-American genealogy has its own unique set of challenges. Williams proves that these challenges can be overcome, at least by someone with her skills and diligence. Williams could have provided us with more human stories, beyond that of facts and figures. Whenever she did, the stories were wonderful. An example is that of Vella Lassiter, a Strieby school success story. She went beyond Strieby to earn Bachelors and Masters Degrees and spent four decades as a teacher. In 1937, she sat down on a crowded bus next to a white person. The bus driver ordered her off the bus and attempted to remove her. When she resisted, the police were called and it took two officers to physically remove her from the bus. This was 18 years before Rosa Parks did the same thing in Montgomery, Alabama. For the residents of Strieby and the rest of Randolph County, and for the descendants of those who once lived there, From Hill Town to Strieby by Margo Lee Williams is an invaluable resource. The historical information will indeed provide a direct connection to generations past.”  David K McDonnell for READER VIEWS, January 2017 

“This book is a superior achievement from cover to cover. It is the result of an unusually high degree of careful research, written in an eminently readable style, and should be deemed the consummate source of information regarding this rural African American community. It houses a colossal amount of copied primary sources, as well as some riveting vintage photographs of community members and their surroundings. Having only read this wonderful book online, it would benefit the reader to have a hard copy on hand. It is one to be read, savored and then added beside other cherished books on a bookshelf for future reference or to later ‘experience’ again.”  North Carolina Society of Historians, Inc., Diamond Jubilee 2016 Awards Program Guidebook, 5 November 2016.

Reader Views

From Hill Town to Strieby is a book of scholarly tenacity, creative boldness, and near acrobatic balance, as it promises to become an essential addition to the history of rural America.” Thomas D. Rush, Author of Reality’s Pen: Reflection on Family, History and Culture

“The reader is immediately drawn into this narrative, its people and their legacy as Ms. Williams brilliantly captures the history of a community that sought, and achieved, the American dream.” Carol Kostakos Petranek, Co-Director, Washington D. C. Family History Center.  

Margo Williams’ outstanding research tells the history of my community and family while speaking of the power of self-determination and the impact of Strieby descendants, past, present, and future.” Elbert Lassiter Jr., Randolph County Community College; Lassiter Family and Strieby Church Descendant. 

From Hill Town to Strieby is a must read for anyone interested in the role of church and education in nineteenth and twentieth century, rural, African American life.”  Roland Barksdale-Hall, Author of Farrell, and  African Americans in Mercer County; and former editor of the Journal of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society.

“As one looks out over the landscape of the American Historical terrain, it is rare for one to find lucid, rural History of any type, let alone African-American History. This is one of the attributes that makes this book by Ms. Margo Williams so special, since she manages to pull this fete off so well. What results is a portrait of a scrappy, tenacious, ambitious, self-determined and mutually supportive Black community, with everyone working together to improve their quality of life. There are key figures within this account, such as Miles Lassiter and Reverend Islay Walden, who are instrumental in bringing about key changes and pushing the progress of the whole community forward. In spelling out these two figures, I must, on a personal note, make it known that while Ms. Margo Williams is a Lassiter descendant, I am, in fact, a Walden descendant. This book is an excellent portrayal irregardless of our family connections to this story, but the fact that we both have familial connections, with our ancestors out there in the rural, North Carolina countryside “chilling” together in the late 1800’s, adds icing to our cake in making this book even more special. This book is meticulously researched and put together in a most perspicacious manner. It’s just a great Historical account of an African-American rural community by a person both personally connected to, and supremely qualified, to tell this story. I enjoyed the book immensely.” The Careful Observer, 30 October 2016. 

“A beautifully researched volume on race, culture, religion and the impact of the American Missionary Association.” Harvey Boone, 23 January 2017.