Welcome to Strieby Congregational Church, School, and Cemetery Cultural Heritage and United for Libraries Literary Landmark! Strieby Cultural Heritage and Literary Landmark Site is located in Union Township, in southwestern Randolph County, in the heart of the Uwharrie Mountains, surrounded by the Uwharrie National Forest. It is located on Strieby Church Road, off High Pine Church Road, about eight miles east of Highway 49.
The original community consisted of free born People of Color, later joined by formerly enslaved freedmen. Many community members descended from Edward “Ned” Hill and his wife, Priscilla (Mahockley) Hill and associated families. The community consisted primarily of Hill family members and was known as Hill Town.
In 1879, the Rev. Islay Walden returned to Randolph County after a twelve odyssey in search of an education. Having received a teaching degree from Howard University and theological training at the New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Brunswick, New Jersey, he returned to Randolph County under the auspices of the American Missionary Association to found a church and school in a small African American community, tucked in the Uwharrie Mountains in southwestern Randolph County, known as Hill Town. By the following Spring, he had acquired six acres on which the first church building was built. That first church was called Promised Land Church and the school, Promised Land Academy.
In 1883, Rev. Walden petitioned the government to establish a post office at Hill Town. He also requested it be called Strieby, in honor of the Corresponding Secretary of the American Missionary Association. With that, the church and school were also renamed Strieby. The church no longer holds weekly services, but continues to serve descendants of the early founders for special occasions, including the annual Homecoming Service, the fourth Sunday of August each year. Family members also continue to bury their loved ones in Strieby Cemetery.
Excerpted from, 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, Inc.), 2016, pp. 127-138.
Rev. Islay Walden was passionate about education. The first church building, built in the spring of 1880, was also used as the school. He was its first teacher. In 1881, he married Elinora Wilhelmina Farmer whom he had met in New Jersey while in seminary. She became the principal teacher at Strieby.
After Islay Walden died in 1884, his cousin, Henry Ruffin Walden, a student at Hampton Institute, who had been teaching at nearby Salem Church School, came to Strieby to become its principal. Elinora also continued as teacher and youth leader. Henry and Elinora married in 1888 and continued to teach the young people of Hill Town/Strieby and nearby communities, such as the one at Lassiter Mill. In the same year, a separate school building was built at Strieby. Elinora died in 1892. Henry Ruffin Walden remarried and moved away in the early 1900s.
In 1905, a larger building was built. It was intended to provide a home for an expanded school. The plan was to become a graded school and normal (secondary) school. However, only the first story was completed. By the 1920s, the community dynamics had changed as people began to find work in the factories outside the community or moved to northern cities in search of better opportunities. A dwindling population caused the trustees to recommend consolidation with other nearby schools for children of color at Salem and Red House. In the 1930s the school was absorbed by the public school system and Strieby School was no more.
The Impact of Strieby School
The impact of Strieby School on the community cannot be overstated. According to the 1870 census, there were only 4 independent households of families of color in Union Township, containing 21 individuals. In 1880, when the Rev. Islay Walden first started the church and school, Hill Town, in Union Township, had grown to 10 families containing 60 people. Already 13 children were attending school. By the 1900 census, the community included 21 families, containing 101 people, with 33 children in school. In 1920, just before the consolidation of the Strieby, Salem, and Red House schools, out migration left 14 families, with 68 individuals. Nevertheless, all 15 children at Strieby, who were school age were in school, and the entire adult population of 52 could read, with only one person marked as unable to write. This was a remarkable achievement for a rural African American community at the time.
The educational aspirations and tradition of excellence at Strieby School have continued to impact successive generations as the story of Strieby School continues to be passed down and held up as a shining light on the hill.
Cultural Heritage Site Designation
In 2014, Strieby was named a Cultural Heritage Site by the Randolph County Historic Landmark Preservation Commission.
To learn more about the history of the Strieby community, church, and school, read From Hill Town to Strieby: Education and the American Missionary Association in the Uwharrie “Back Country” of Randolph County, North Carolina.
The Rev. Islay Walden, ca. 1844-1880
Islay Walden was born enslaved to James Gar[d]ner, in about 1843/1844, in Randolph County, North Carolina, to Ruth and Branson Garner/Walden. He was eventually sold to Jesse Smitherman, in neighboring Montgomery County,
After Emancipation, Walden walked to Washington, D.C. in search of an education and help for his vision. He eventually received a scholarship to attend Howard University. In 1873, After beginning his studies in the Normal (teaching) program at Howard University, he published a small volume of poems called, Miscellaneous Poems, Which the Author Desires to Dedicate to the Cause of Education and Humanity, which he used to raise money to support his studies. His poems are reflections on public events, people he met, his observations of contemporary issues, and his spiritual reflections. While a student at Howard, he also established a “Sabbath School” to serve the local African American Community.
After graduating from Howard University in 1876, he moved to New Brunswick, New Jersey, where he received another scholarship to attend the New Brunswick Theological Seminary. Once again, he published a small volume of poems called, Sacred Poems, with a Sketch of His Life, to raise money to support himself as well as creating and leading a “Students’ Mission.” He graduated and was ordained in 1879. He returned to Randolph County, where he started two churches and schools: Salem Congregational Church and school, as well as Promised Land Congregational Church and school.
In 1881, he married Elinora Farmer whom he met while a student at the New Brunswick seminary. In 1883, Rev. Walden petitioned the United States government for a post office. It was granted and as requested, the name of the community and church were changed from “Hill Town” to “Strieby.” Rev. Walden was the first postmaster.
On 2 February 1884, the Rev. Islay Walden died.
United for Libraries Literary Landmark Designation
In August 2021, Strieby Church was notified that United for Libraries (American Library Association affiliate) had designated Strieby a Literary Landmark in honor of the Rev. Islay Walden, a recognized 19th century African American poet. It was his enslaver, Jesse Smitherman who was the first to call Walden a “poet,” after hearing his impromptu poem eulogizing “Poor Old Dick,” an ox who died. In 1911, Arthur Schomburg and John Bruce created The Negro Society for Historical Research, the foundational collection for the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, in New York City. Among those works that they first gathered for this new collection were the poems of “Islay Walden, Blind Poet of North Carolina.” The Marker will be unveiled on Saturday, 5 February 2022.
To learn more about the life of the Rev. Islay Walden, read Born Missionary: The Islay Walden Story, published in 2021.
Strieby Cemetery is still the resting place of choice for the loved ones of many descendants of the founding families. In addition to being the resting place of the Rev. Islay Walden and his wife, it is the resting place of Novella “Vella” Lassiter, who was at the center of a Civil Rights ruling in the late 1930s.
Excerpted from, 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, Inc.), 2016, pp. 166-172.
A Civil Rights Story: Vella Lassiter
Vella Lassiter was one example of both the legacy of educational excellence encouraged by schools in the American Missionary Association tradition, as well as their stance against injustice. Born Novella Anna Lassiter, “Vella” was the second of thirteen children (twelve of whom survived) of Winston and Ora (Kearns) Lassiter, of the Lassiter Mill community in Randolph County, North Carolina. Vella attended Strieby Church School. From there she went on to Peabody Academy in Troy, in neighboring Montgomery County, and then to Bennett College, in Greensboro. Vella graduated in 1913 from the Normal program and eventually earned her Master’s degree from Miner Teachers College, in Washington, D. C. (Miner became part of DC Teachers College which became the foundation for the Department of Education at the University of the District of Columbia.) Vella went on to become a teacher, first back at Strieby, then the combined school at Red House School in the nearby Mechanic area, at Central School in Asheboro, and eventually at a school in Reidsville, in Rockingham County, North Carolina, where she taught for 40 years. However, being close to her family, she often came home on weekends to visit.
So it was, in 1937. Vella was returning to Reidsville on Easter Monday afternoon. She was on the first of her two bus trips. The first bus would take her from Asheboro to Greensboro, about 35 miles away in Guilford County. From there she would take a bus to Reidsville. She had bought her ticket and was seated on the bus – next to a white person; the bus was crowded; there were no more seats. The bus driver apparently objected to Vella sitting next to a white person. Vella was asked to give up her seat, get off the bus, and wait for the next one. Anyone who knew Vella knew she was a force of nature. Vella said “No.” The bus driver attempted to force her off the bus. Vella resisted. Eventually two policemen were needed to drag her to the door and throw her onto the sidewalk. She would later tell people there was no way she would make it easy for them to throw her off that bus. After all, she had bought a ticket and she was just as good as any white person.
Vella called one of her brothers to come and take her to Reidsville, but she also called a lawyer, her cousin, prominent High Point, North Carolina, African American attorney, T. F Sanders. With his assistance and that of prominent civil rights attorney, F.W. Williams, of Winston Salem, Vella sued the Greensboro-Fayetteville Bus Line, on the grounds that they had sold her the ticket for that specific bus trip and consequently were required to transport her. To everyone’s surprise they won the case in a jury trial in November of that year. She was awarded $300 in damages. The bus company appealed to the North Carolina State Supreme Court. Two years later in 1939, the decision was upheld by Judge Allen H. Gwyn. Vella had won. In reporting the victory on 18 August 1939, The Carolina Times newspaper, published in Raleigh, wrote that:
Possibly the most significant victory regarding the rights of Negroes was won in Randolph County last month when attorney P.[sic] W. Williams, prominent Winston-Salem lawyer emerged victorious in a suit against the Greensboro-Fayetteville Bus Line.
Her success was particularly significant because there was only one other lawsuit like it that had gone to the North Carolina State Supreme Court and won before hers, that was a 1914 housing segregation lawsuit in Winston-Salem.
Keep Strieby Striving
Thank you for taking the time to read about the history of Strieby. We the descendants continue to strive to embody and teach to the next generations the values that our ancestors, the founders of Strieby, passed to us.
If you would like to help “Keep Strieby Striving” by making a donation, you may do so at Cash App by using the tag $StriebyChurch, or you can send a check to Strieby Church, at PO Box 3429, Asheboro, NC 27203. We appreciate any and all donations. Thank you.