Margo Lee Williams
From Hill Town to Strieby: Education and the American Missionary Association in the Uwharrie “Back Country” of Randolph County, North Carolina (Backintyme Publishing, 2016).
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What is your book about?
From Hill Town to Strieby tells the story of former slave, and noted 19th century poet, Islay Walden, who returned, in 1879, to a secluded area in the Uwharrie Mountains, in Southwestern Randolph County, North Carolina. Walden had graduated from the New Brunswick Theological Seminary, and was now an ordained minister and missionary of the American Missionary Association sent to plant a church and school for the local African American community. When he began it was, not surprisingly, a largely illiterate community of primarily Hill family members, so large, it was known as “Hill Town.” The church and school would also serve the nearby Lassiter Mill community which was larger and more diverse, but 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 literacy and educational achievements of these remote communities. From Hill Town to Strieby also provides well-documented four generation genealogies of the two principal founding families, the Hills and Lassiters; provides information on the family relationships of those buried in the cemetery; and identifies from their death certificates those buried in the cemetery who have no cemetery markers. Finally, it provides information about the designation of the Strieby Church, School, and Cemetery property as a Randolph County Cultural Heritage Site.
What inspired you to write your book?
I firmly believe the stories of small rural African American communities have not been adequately made known. This was one such community. I had heard so often from family members who grew up in the Strieby area and attended the school that it had had a profound impact on their lives. Although the school is closed now, the church is still an important focal point for the community and family members continue to bring their deceased loved ones there to bury. As I was researching the history of the community and the founding minister, I realized that the Rev. Islay Walden’s story was not adequately researched and was clearly a stronger story than had been publicized. In addition, once having successfully nominated the property as a cultural heritage site, I believed with additional research a book was possible and could be an important addition to the historical record.
Can you describe your writing process?
As a genealogist and family historian, I find that my research discoveries begin to tell their own stories. I often find they take shape in my mind long before I actually begin writing the story on paper. The research may have provided a series of related short stories that become the backbone for a larger piece or even a book. Once I’ve determined the direction of the story I begin to do additional research to develop additional background and context for the story.
How did you come to do what you’re doing today?
I’ve always loved writing and history. My aunt, who was born in the late 19th century, loved to talk with me about family history and tell family stories. By the mid-1970s, I began doing my own research and discovered some family stories that were worthy of writing about, leading to my first book, Miles Lassiter (circa 1777-1850) an Early African American Quaker from Lassiter Mill, Randolph County, North Carolina (Backintyme Publishing, 2011), about my fourth great grandfather.
Can you describe a typical day in your life?
I can’t really say that I have a “typical day.” I manage to find multiple times in the day to do on-line research in pursuit of various research threads. When I feel I have enough for a short story I will begin to write the story. It may be a blog post or journal article, or the beginning of a section of a book. I’m often working on multiple ideas at a time, so the research to a large extent sends me in the direction I need to go next. Since I am a volunteer at my local Family History Center (Washington DC Family History Center, Kensington, MD), I have access to additional research resources that I can pursue on a regular basis. Then, as a story develops, I may take research trips to specific repositories or arrange to meet and interview specific individuals.
What do you most enjoy about what you do?
I enjoy many different aspects. I enjoy the research discoveries and meeting the people who have connections to the stories. I also enjoy the opportunity to tell previously unknown stories about people who made a difference in the lives of the people around them, by changing their communities for the better.
Are there any people and/or books that have inspired you along your journey?
There are many people who have influenced me, more that I can include here. My aunt (Lute Williams Mann), as I mentioned, was my earliest inspiration. An appearance by Alex Haley on the Johnny Carson Show helped me understand I could really pursue this kind of research and writing. Genealogist, Donald Ray Barnes, and the late Archivist, James Dent Walker, were early mentors who helped me learn how to do this research and encouraged my writing endeavors. My cousin, the late Kate Lassiter Jones, and local Randolph County historian, the late Carolyn Neely Hager, were so very helpful and encouraging when I began researching in Randolph County, North Carolina. There were writers such as Edward Ball (Slaves in the Family), Dorothy Spruill Radford (Somerset Homecoming), and Stephen Vincent (Southern Seed, Northern Soil), who provided insights into how I could tell my stories. Finally, supportive research and writing friends, such as Marvin T. Jones, Vernon Skinner, and Victoria Price have consistently been my cheerleaders. That’s not an exhaustive list by any means. I’ve been very lucky in having many supportive friends and colleagues.
Can you share something that people may be surprised to learn about you?
I’m not sure what that would be, possibly that I have a medical background, worked for over twenty years in religious education, and was a national service officer with a veterans’ organization for eight years.
What’s next for you?
I’m actually continuing to research additional leads on the Rev. Islay Walden’s family relationships. There has been significant misinformation about his family relationships that I’ve been able to uncover.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Talk to your family members, learn their stories, and share them, share them, share them!
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