From Hill Town to Strieby: Education and the American Missionary Association in the Uwharrie “Back Country” of Randolph County, North Carolina
Signed copies available from the author.
When 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.
2017 Gold Award from the Non-Fiction Authors’ Association.
2017 Finalist in the African American category of the Next Generation INDIE Book Awards.
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.
Strieby’s origins can be traced to a handful of free African American families who lived in southern Randolph County in the decades immediately before the Civil War. The most prominent, the Hills and Lassisters, enjoyed supportive relationships with neighboring white families, many of whom were Quakers. After 1865 many, along with local freed men and women, relocated in a mountainous area called Hill Town. At its zenith in the late nineteenth century about one hundred people lived in the neighborhood.
Walden, a former slave, was a singular, inspiring individual. Despite near blindness, he had been recognized before the Civil War for his quick mind and skill as a poet. In the winter of 1867-1868 Walden journeyed by foot to Washington, D.C intent on gaining a formal education. Thus began an eleven-year odyssey that would lead him to publish two volumes of poetry, graduate from Howard University’s Normal School, and ultimately earn a divinity degree from New Brunswick (N.J.) Theological Seminary. Following his 1879 graduation and ordination as a Protestant minister, he chose to return to his native Randolph County as an AMA-funded missionary.
Between late 1879 and his premature death in early 1884 Walden helped advance Hill Town’s fortunes on several fronts. In 1880 he purchased six acres of land and established the Strielby Congregational Church and School. The congregation soon became a hub of activity and was affiliated with other nearby African American Congregational churches. The one-room school, meanwhile, would serve the area’s families until school consolidation with neighboring African American schools occurred in the 1920s. Shortly before his death Walden successfully petitioned the federal government for a post office for the remote neighborhood, a signal accomplishment given Strieby’s small size.
Williams correctly emphasizes that Strieby became a place of pride for its members, and that this pride continues among its descendants. Much of this stems from the area’s school. Despite African Americans’ well-documented thirst for education after the Civil War, public support for schooling was extremely limited at best. Hundreds of African American communities in North Carolina went without public school buildings at the turn of the twentieth centuries. In this environment Strielby, with its AMA-funded school, fared much better than most. Williams shows that literacy rates at the community were nearly 60% in 1900 and 1910; literacy rates for African Americans throughout the nation were closer to 50%. By 1940 literacy among local residents was nearly universal.
Other signs of Strielby’s ongoing importance to its later members and community residents are apparent in other ways as well: in area residents’ active participation on the school board for the consolidated school district that succeeded Strielby’s one-room school from the mid-1920s; in a former resident’s successful drive to build a new church-community building in the 1970s; in a successful effort to have the Strieby church and school property designated a Randolph County Cultural Heritage Site in 2014; and in its annual Homecoming-Revival celebration each August.
_From Hill Town to Streiby_ stands out for the quality of its research and discussion. Reconstructing the history of a small neighborhood, yet alone one that was disadvantaged, is no small accomplishment. Williams’ research goes well beyond that normally associated with local history. The author makes very good use of records related to the American Missionary Association, newspapers, interviews, U.S. census records, State of North Carolina education resources, land deeds, other public records, and a large amount of the surrounding scholarly literature. Together this allows Williams to place Strieby and its early leader Isray Walden in a deeper and more far-reaching context than would normally be expected.
Ultimately Williams’ book offers something for both Strieby descendants and those interested in larger aspects of southern African American history during the late nineteenth century. For professional historians like myself, _From Hill Town to Strieby_ stands out for the ways it demonstrates the importance of grassroots leadership of a man like Walden during Reconstruction, the central place of religion and education as pillars of post-Civil War community life, and the enduring legacy of the AMA’s investment in the area’s church and school. One suspects that Strieby’s good fortune was widely shared throughout the South in other places where the AMA and local leadership came together at this special point in African American history. April 4, 2018
One of the people who graces the pages of the book, From Hill Town to Strieby, is Rev. Islay Walden, an ambitious and undeterred man. The book showcases his selflessness and undivided determination to change the state of his community. He leaves his home and comes back years later educated and ready to implement long-lasting and invaluable changes to Strieby.
The author, Margo Lee Williams, masterfully presents the backdrop of Strieby and the circumstances surrounding Rev. Islay Walden’s life and the community he was serving at the time. Behind his gracious and determined efforts, Rev. Islay Walden did not impact the community by himself; rather he was also aided by others before him and those who offered him their help.
One of the best aspects of the book, From Hill Town to Strieby, to me, was that it contains inspiring and informative information on how both the Church and education played significant roles in the development of rural African American communities. Margo Lee Williams points out how the American Missionary Association (AMA) brought education to African Americans in the South. The Association was of great help to the Strieby community and also advanced Rev. Islay’s hope of seeing his people educated.
Another great aspect of the book is the rich history that it contains starting from the 1700s and moving along generational lines to the Strieby community now. Margo Lee Williams shows how the town has changed and what deliberate efforts were made to change the state of affairs. She keenly focuses on education, Church and family and how all these have changed from a time of great adversity and impoverishment to a point of significant liberty and development.
From Hill Town to Strieby is also very well researched, organized and written. It contains close to no grammatical errors and I could not help admiring the meticulousness of Margo Lee Williams. The various historical records and images that were also included in the book built interest in me to keep reading the book and helped me understand the information contained even more deeply. They also ignited my imagination. I found the book really inspirational and therefore rate it 4 out of 4 stars. EmunahAn, 01 Mar 2018, OnlineBookClub.org
“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.
“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.