Monday, April 20, 2009

Nelly Strowd Strayhorn (1850-1950)

(click on photograph for larger image)

Aunt Nellie Strowd Strayhorn (1850-1950) and Dr. Braxton Bynum (Brack) Lloyd

Aunt Nelly (Strowd) Strayhorn was a slave. She and her husband, Toney Strayhorn, a preacher, are buried in the black section of the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery. Her father belonged to Bruce Strowd's great grandfather, Bryant Strowd. Nelly and her Mother worked for Wesley and Julia Atwater. Wesley was a brother of Matthew Atwater, but Nelly must have worked Bryant Strowd's land as well because she mentions plowing with Wilson Strowd behind a mule named "Duck."

Wilson Strowd (aka Wilse) was named for his grandfather, John Wilson, founder of Damascus Congregational Christian Church on Jones Ferry Road. Wilse was a frugal bachelor, school teacher, and surveyor. He was the elder brother of Congressman W. F. Strowd.

Nelly Strowd Strayhorn died in 1950 and is buried in the black section of the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery.

Chapel Hill Cemetery
Section A
Nellie Strowd Strayhorn, 1850-1950. Died at the age of 100. Toney Strayhorn.

Toney Strayhorn was a former slave who became a brick mason as well as one of the founders and and associate ministers of the Rock Hill Baptist Church. This was the first African American church in Orange County. He also owned land, and built a two story farmhouse which is still located on Jones Ferry Road, Carrboro. Toney Strayhorn shares the same grave marker as Nellie Strowd Srayhorn, who was his wife. This family plot is surrounded by brick masonry and is quite visible in Section A.

Reminiscences of Slavery Days

"Yes'um, I was a slave," said Aunt Nellie Strayhorn of Carrboro, who will be 95 next June 30. "My Missus and Master is both dead now. I'm here yet but I'm getting mighty old and can't hardly get about. I wants to work but I can't."

Until she was fourteen Aunt Nellie belonged to Wesley Atwater and his wife, Miss Julie, who lived about six miles from Chapel Hill on the Hillsboro Road.

"Back in slavery times it was something," said Aunt Nellie from her seat in the sunshine in the house she and her husband bought in Carrboro after they were given their freedom. "When I was a gal I had to tote water from a spring - they didn't have wells like dey do now-and wait on Missus in her room.

"I ploughed same as a man too. I used to plough with a mule named Duck, side by side with Mr. Wilson Strowd. He owned my Daddy. And bind wheat—I can do everything in the field except split rails for a fence. I love to work out.

"We lived in a log house down in a field. Mother would get up early in the morning and go to the house to build a fire and get breakfast. I was the oldest, so I got the other children up and to the kitchen.

"If the colored people could just come back and tell you how it was. Dey was human too. Some of us seen hard time. Dey give me plenty to eat. We got locust beer sometimes. It's nice. Missus had it made by the barrel. I used to tote vittles to the house from the old kitchen. Made time when it rained. When dey left biscuit scraps on their plates, I'd eat em all up before I got back to the kitchen.

"Missus give us good clothes. We wore yarn dresses until May. Every Sunday we changed our dresses. In May Missus let us take them off and put on streaked cotton dresses. Master made our shoes, but we didn't get them until Christmas. We went barefooted most of the time, even to church. When we went to church we sat outside the house on slab benches. We went to Antioch church. Mr. Sam Baldwin was the preacher there. He was the finest to be sure. He was a great old man to shout, I never will forget them songs. One of them was: "Turn sinner, turn sinner, when you die God your maker will ask you why.'"

She used to go to Cedar Grove occasionally too.

While her great-granddaughter, four-year-old Ann Barbee, played beside her, Aunt Nellie reminisced about her own childhood. "I never had nary doll but what I made. We played with them on a Sunday."

"My master had a fine orchard." she went on, "but we won't allowed to pick any fruit lo eat. Master let us nirk un what was on the ground, and ne cs iooK at it w'hpn we got back to the house to sci. .1 ,,.>- stem was fresh. One time an apple fell just as we got to the tree. I ate three mouth-fuls of it before Master looked at it and saw the stem was fresh. He made me stop because he said I picked it. Several days later when i'. had dried oiii be mai-le me eat up and then gave me three lick. That was the only whipping I ever got."

Aunt Nellie's father belonged to Mr. Bryant Strowd. The family wasn't together until after the surrender of the Confederate forces in 1865. Her mother's first husband had been sold to a new owner a long way off. After the surrender he came back to see his children, Aunt Nellie's half brothers and sisters. By that time both he and Aunt Nellie's mother had been married again.

"If folks had any slaves to sell," said Aunt Nellie, "dey carried them to Hillsboro and put them on a block just like cattle. My husband's mother was sold from him when he was just a little fellow."

During the Civil War Aunt Nellie, her mother, and her brothers stayed with Miss Julie while their Master went to the army. Aunt Nellie's mother stayed busy cooking barrels of food to send to the Confederate soldiers. "When the Yankees come the first time, all the hands was in the field, just like Master was there," Aunt Nellie said.

"Dey asked Mother if she knew we was free. She said 'No, Sir,' and I was standin' beside her when she said it. 'We fought to free you,' dey told her. Dey was nice but we was 'fraid, cause we weren't used to those blue suits and shiny buttons, and the guns at their sides. When Wheeler's cavalry come, my brothers took the horses and hid them in the pine field. Missus wasn't there but she knew my brothers would look after things."

After the surrender Aunt Nellie worked four years for lawyer Mason at $5 a month. "My Daddy got the money," she added cryptically.

After a while Aunt Nellie met and married Tony Strayhorn, who formerly belonged to the Strayhorns of University Station. He learned his ABC's by himself in the moonlight after he was freed. "Yes'um, he taught himself," said Aunt Nellie, obviously proud of her husband, who is still remembered and respected in Carrboro, where he died with pneumonia ten years ago. "I had a good husband and a smart one too. He taught himself. Missus could have learned me too, but in dem days they didn't learn colored people anything except work. Tony was a preacher. One text he used to use was 'Wash and be clean.' He could read good too."

Aunt Nellie has eleven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. One of the most charming and interesting conversationalists around these parts, she likes a toddy now and then, and likes to sit in the kitchen talking to whoever is working there. Referring to life in slavery she grins and says. "We thought we was having [a good] time; we just didn't know any better."

The foregoing was published in a Chapel Hill newspaper c.1940 and was the result of an interview conducted at the time by a female reporter. The newspaper may have been The Chapel Hill News, which was launched in 1923.

Note that she also has been referred to as Nellie Atwater Strowd Strayhorn:
On September 1, [2009] we celebrate and complicate this shared history. Join us for sweet potato pie, a chance to dance, and more than one good story as local residents of our traditionally Black neighborhoods share their memories with UNC students and the extended Chapel Hill-Carrboro community.
“My great-grandmother told me the stories . . . she was born in 1850. She lived 100 years and 30 days. . . she would tell me stories about when she was growing up. How when she was a little girl and the day they were freed. She said the soldiers came in their navy blue suits and their shiny brass buttons and they were in the field working. And asked them if they knew they were freed?” Dolores Hogan Clark, great-granddaughter of Nellie Atwater Strowd Strayhorn