A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

Half a mile down a dusty gravel road, deep in the rolling hills of Uwharrie National Forest near Asheboro, sits a little country church. On most days, it’s so still

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Half a mile down a dusty gravel road, deep in the rolling hills of Uwharrie National Forest near Asheboro, sits a little country church. On most days, it’s so still

Peace in the Uwharries

Half a mile down a dusty gravel road, deep in the rolling hills of Uwharrie National Forest near Asheboro, sits a little country church. On most days, it’s so still and quiet in this six-acre clearing that you can hear the flutter of birds’ wings and the cracks of breaking branches in the oak trees at the edge of the small cemetery. Marking the graves are weathered stones, some dating back more than a century, inscribed with names like Lassiter, Hill, Smitherman, and Laughlin.

On this Sunday in late August, though, Strieby Congregational United Church of Christ is jumping. It’s homecoming weekend, and about 50 people are packed into the fellowship hall just steps away from the sanctuary. Loud voices bounce off brick and wood-paneled walls as extended family members scoot from table to table, hugging, kissing, and catching up on all the comings and goings since last year’s gathering: births, graduations, marriages, deaths. Jerry Laughlin, 76 years old and looking Cab Calloway-stylish in pleated charcoal pants and a lilac dress shirt unbuttoned at the top, presides over a spread of fried chicken, green beans, stewed cabbage, yams, rolls, and peach cobbler.

“We’ve been cooking for this event for at least 10 years, maybe more,” Jerry says, smiling warmly at the familiar faces lined up for second helpings. “We lived in Charlotte for a while, but even then, we always came back for homecoming.” He motions to the woman dishing out the cobbler. “This is my wife, Jackcine,” he says, and she winks. She’s the sister of Don Simmons, the beloved owner of Magnolia 23 in Asheboro, one of the most popular Southern-style restaurants in Randolph County. Jerry occasionally helps out there, too. “It’s all in the family,” he says with a chuckle.

Jerry’s roots in this area run much deeper than 10 years, or even 50. Like many of those surrounding him today, he’s a descendant of the Lassiters of the nearby community of Lassiter’s Mill. Others are descendants of Hills, who lived right here in Strieby, a once-vibrant village that began life as Hill Town. In the late 1800s, the Lassiters and the Hills became part of a combined faith community that’s been coming home to this church every fourth Sunday in August for the past 141 years.

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Founded more than a decade before the start of the Civil War, Hill Town was a rare mixed community of free African Americans and some white people, mostly abolitionist Quakers, all living together in peace. In 1883, it was renamed Strieby by Islay Walden, a partially blind poet and one-time resident of Lassiter’s Mill. Formerly enslaved, with an extraordinary mathematical mind, Walden had worked as a mule driver in a Uwharrie gold mine before leaving North Carolina in 1867, two years after the Civil War ended, and walking all the way to Washington, D.C. While there, he attended Howard University and, later, in New Jersey, the New Brunswick Theological Seminary. In 1879, by then an ordained minister with a passion for educating Black children, Walden returned to southwestern Randolph County, where he built a plank church and school, and a post office to serve the people of Hill Town and part of Lassiter’s Mill. He renamed Hill Town in honor of abolitionist M.E. Strieby, the American Missionary Association’s corresponding secretary for foreign missions.

Growing up in this area in the 1950s, Jerry wasn’t aware of the rich history surrounding Strieby when he and his brother and sister would play together in the pews between Sunday school classes and the main service. Nobody did, really. Oh, there were some newspaper articles, and Jerry remembers hearing Walden’s name spoken from time to time. “But I didn’t know much about him,” he says. “I knew that he founded the church, and that he was buried out there in the cemetery.”

The original plank church at Strieby was built by the Rev. Islay Walden (right) in the spring of 1880. It was replaced by the current brick structure in 1972. Photography courtesy of MARGO LEE WILLIAMS; RANDOLPH COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRARY HISTORIC PHOTOGRAPH COLLECTION, RANDOLPHLIBRARY.ORG

It wasn’t until a historian and genealogist from Maryland began digging into her own family’s history that a clearer picture of Strieby began to emerge. Margo Lee Williams had been researching an ancestor, Miles Lassiter, who owned about 400 acres of farmland in this part of North Carolina. When she started out, she had no clue that her sleuthing would uncover the existence of a self-sustaining Black community in Reconstruction-era Randolph County.

“The story was: Free African Americans were living here,” she says, “and they had a successful school and a church, and they were farmers, and they owned their property, and they got along with their [white] neighbors.” She laughs. “It’s kind of hard to explain to people,” she says with a shrug. “They look at you a little weird, and they want to make certain assumptions [about race relations]. And I’m like, ‘That just isn’t how it was here.’ The people in this particular area simply got along. They were coexisting; they were helping each other with their crops.”

When Margo Lee Williams and her mother, Margaret, first traveled to North Carolina in 1982, they were invited into homes to meet roomfuls of Lassiter relatives whom they’d never known. Photography courtesy of MARGO LEE WILLIAMS

Margaret (left) posed with Kate Lassiter Jones, a Strieby teacher. Photography courtesy of MARGO LEE WILLIAMS

After visiting the area with her mother in 1982, Margo grew close to her newfound family members and began regularly making the six-hour drive down from Maryland each summer for the Strieby homecoming. She eventually wrote a book about Miles Lassiter, then another about Strieby, and then a third about Islay Walden. Her presence in the community over the past 40 years, Jerry says, has brought an already close-knit group of rural families even closer. “She’s done an excellent job,” he says. “We’ve learned so much from her.”

The homecoming is a joyous affair. People arrive from across North Carolina: Raleigh, Greensboro, Fayetteville. They come from out of state: New York, Massachusetts, Washington, D.C. One works for Homeland Security. Another, Elbert Lassiter, was recently the interim president of Randolph Community College. But it’s a rare gathering these days; except for this one weekend in August, Strieby Congregational United Church of Christ typically sits silent. In the 13 years since Jerry and Jackcine packed up their home in Charlotte and moved back here, they’ve seen attendance at regular services slow from a trickle to a drip.

“We can’t even afford to have a preacher come in and preach to just two or three people,” Jerry laments. “But I know what the Lord said: ‘For where two or three are gathered together in my name, I’m in the midst of them.’”

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By mid-afternoon, family members have moved from the fellowship hall into the sanctuary. Sunlight filters through stained-glass windows behind the pulpit, casting a diaphanous veil of color through the room, as if everything is floating in a fine mist. Faces glow. Heads nod. Musical instruments glisten. A man behind an electric piano pounds out a rousing gospel melody before engaging the four singers standing next to him — swaying from side to side, hands clapping, one shaking a tambourine — in a call-and-response: “There’s something inside of me,” the piano player growls in a raspy baritone, followed by joyful voices singing in unison, “telling me to go ahead.”

When the music winds down and the pre-service prayers and announcements begin, something inside of Tasha Laughlin Hall’s spirit tells her to switch things up this year. Instead of reminiscing on the history of the church, she decides to pay tribute to some of the folks who’ve helped keep the congregation going into the 21st century.

Jerry Laughlin was genuinely surprised when his daughter, Tasha, honored him during the Strieby homecoming service. “It caught me off guard,” he says. “That was really special.” photograph by Jerry Wolford & Scott Muthersbaugh

Margo Lee Williams cradles the bell from the original Strieby church. photograph by Jerry Wolford & Scott Muthersbaugh

People like Margo, whose research, Tasha reminds the congregation, has helped solidify Strieby’s past so that it may endure for future generations of Lassiters, Hills, Smithermans, and Laughlins. People like Tasha’s cousin Elbert, whom she describes as an unofficial trustee of the church. And people like the 76-year-old man who, according to Tasha, takes care of all the
details: “cleaning up the church, making sure things work, making sure the lawn is mowed and the cemetery looks nice.” That person, she says, her voice catching with emotion, “is my father, Jerry Laughlin.” Jerry steps to the front of the sanctuary, where Tasha embraces him and presents him with a certificate of excellence.

Later, reflecting on the homecoming service, on the seven-and-a-half decades of previous homecoming services that he’s attended, Jerry sighs. It’s a sigh of satisfaction that the church in which he grew up, surrounded by so much history and so much love among so many different kinds of people, is still going. It’s also a bittersweet sigh of longing for a time at Strieby when every Sunday was a homecoming.

To learn more about Strieby, visit facebook.com/striebyheritagesite.

Bells of Freedom

A Maryland author has solved the mystery of her family’s connection to a rural church in Randolph County.

Margo Lee Williams began actively researching her family tree back in the 1970s, inspired by the genealogical work of Roots author Alex Haley to keep digging deeper. But somewhere along the way, a connection was lost. Details about her Lassiter ancestors and their church community in rural Randolph County were fuzzy. Growing up in Queens, New York, far away from North Carolina, Margo looked to her mother, Margaret, for some clarity.

Margaret had lived in Greensboro and Asheboro until around age 7, when her family set off for New Jersey. She vaguely remembered her grandmother Louise talking about a place called Strieby, but Margaret had never been there herself. “To my mother,” Margo says, “Strieby was just a word that had been floating around, untethered to any reality.”

Margaret, Margo Lee Williams’ mother, dressed up for a photo with little sister Elverna Elizabeth Lee (Means), circa 1920. Photography courtesy of MARGO LEE WILLIAMS

As it turns out, a rift in the Lassiter family had separated the descendants of two siblings. When Margaret’s great-great-grandmother died around 1890, her share of the family’s land in the Lassiter’s Mill area went to her children. Louise’s mother, Ellen, had taken it upon herself to purchase her brother’s share of the property. That didn’t sit well with her brother’s family, and a decades-long feud ensued. “People stopped speaking to each other,” Margo says. Ellen ended up moving to Asheboro and later sold her share of the land to one of her cousins. Margaret’s family eventually made the great migration up North. “And from then on,” Margo says, “my family had nothing to do with the people down here in Strieby.”

That all changed in 1982, when Margo and her mom took the road trip down South that would forever change their lives, introducing them to an extended family in this small community that had made a big impact on the lives of generations of people in North Carolina and beyond. With the family feud decades in the rearview mirror, the Williamses were embraced by their newfound Lassiter relatives. They stayed in their homes, marveled over their physical resemblances, and learned about each other’s kids and grandkids. In 2011, Margo published the family’s story in her first book, Miles Lassiter (circa 1777-1850): An Early African-American Quaker from Lassiter Mill, Randolph County, North Carolina: My Research Journey to Home.

In 2016, Margo, a graduate of Marquette University with an MA in sociology from Hunter College and another MA in religious education from The Catholic University of America, published her eye-opening second book, From Hill Town to Strieby: Education and the American Missionary Association in the Uwharrie “Back Country” of Randolph County, North Carolina. The title’s academic tone belies the underlying heart and soul that pulse through its pages — free, educated people of color living, loving, and working together in a tiny mixed-race community in the pre- and post-Civil War South. Kirkus called it “a breathtakingly thorough exploration of a historically significant town.”

Margo’s most recent book, Born Missionary: The Islay Walden Story, won her the 2021 Phillis Wheatley Book Award in the nonfiction biography category, presented by the Sons and Daughters of the United States Middle Passage. These days, when she isn’t spending time in North Carolina, Margo gives lectures on genealogical research, Black history, and historical mixed-race communities. But her heart is always in Randolph County, in a little country church down a gravel road in the Uwharries.