By Michelle Cassell
CARRBORO — The Town of Carrboro City Council approved a resolution on Tuesday to place its third truth plaque on the homeplace of Toney and Nellie Strayhorn.
The Strayhorn home, located at 109 Jones Ferry Road in Carrboro, is the location of one of the first Black families in the town.
The text on the plaque will read, “Enslaved in Orange County, Toney and Nellie Strayhorn were one of the first Black families to settle in Carrboro. After purchasing 30 acres of land, they built a one-room log cabin in 1879, which has been added to over the years. This home is a historic landmark and a testament to their faith, resilience, and determination to persevere.”
Truth plaque program started in 2018 when Carrboro council member Jacquie Gist created a committee to communicate history about the town name and its ties to North Carolina State Legislator Julian S. Carr, a prominent figure in the white supremacist movement. The committee presented this first truth plaque to the council in 2019, which was approved. The second truth plaque is at the former Freedmen’s School site on North Merritt Mill Road next to the St. Paul AME Church and adjacent to the Carolina Car Wash. The Strayhorn plaque will be the third.
Toney Jinkins Strayhorn was born in 1850 in Orange County as an enslaved child on the plantation of Samuel Strayhorn. As was customary at the time, enslaved people took the last names of the slaveholder when they were freed.
According to a technical report prepared by Legacy Research Associates of Durham for Orange County in May 2016, the plantation was located on 178 acres in the Blackwood Farm Park near Hillsborough and in the Chapel Hill Township of Orange County.
An oral history by Toney’s great-granddaughter Delores Clark and her daughter Loire Clark provides first-hand recollections.
“Toney’s mother was taken from him at age seven and sold to another enslaver in Hillsborough. He never saw her again,” Delores said.
“His mother’s last words to him were ‘be a good boy, be a good boy,’” she said.
Toney grew to adulthood on the Strayhorn plantation. He stayed several years after being freed in 1865.
Toney ventured off the plantation and met and married Nellie Carolina Atwater Stroud in January 1876, according to the Hanna Ruth Foundation historical account written by Toney’s great-great-great-granddaughter, Lorie Clark.
Nellie had also been enslaved. A 1950 interview with Nellie appeared in the Archive of the Carrboro Citizen on July 28, 2011.
“When the Yankees come the first time, all hands was in the field,” Nellie was quoted in the Citizen story.“They asked Mother if she knew she was free. She said, ‘no sir,’ and I was standing right beside her. They said, ‘We fought to free you.’ They was nice but we was afraid. We weren’t used to those blue suits, shiny buttons, and the guns at their sides.”
Delores said Toney and Nellie had no shoes and sold vegetables until they were able to purchase 30 acres in Carrboro.
In 1879 the Carrboro area was densely forested. Toney cleared his land and built a one-room log cabin for himself and his wife. Their life there was abundant and self-sufficient. They raised everything they needed to live on except for sugar, coffee, and flour.
“They even raised cotton that they would take to the mill and sell,” Delores said.
Delores described her great-grandfather as a “visionary” man of great faith. He taught himself to read and write while often sitting on the back porch when the moon was out.
“My great-grandmother never learned to read or write. She relied on my great-grandfather,” Explained Delores. “Back then, they were not allowed to have lights on in the house. That is why he would sit on the back porch to read in the moonlight.”
“In those days, Black families kept the lights off at night to protect themselves from getting attention from the Ku Klux Klan,” Lorie told The Local Reporter.
“The Klan would ride at night looking for homes with lights burning which could mean Black people were reading, and they saw that as forbidden,” she said.
Toney was a man of faith and became a minister after learning to read the Bible. He was one of the founders of the First Baptist Church (formerly Rock Hill Baptist Church).
Toney added onto the original home as his family grew. He trained himself in brick masonry in addition to farming. Nellie became a community youth advocate, and together they had two children, William and Sallie Strayhorn. Both children and Sallie’s husband, Fred Barbee, died early, leaving nine grandchildren that needed a home, from toddlers to teenagers.
Lorie wrote, “Toney said, ‘I will raise them even if I have to live on bread and water,’” adding they were raised well and lived long, productive lives in Carrboro.
The Strayhorn homeplace is not on the National Register of Historic Places, but it is in the process of being considered once more restoration work is completed. Delores Clark still lives in the homestead with her grandson.
“Six generations of the Strayhorn family have lived in the home,” Lorie said.
Terri Buckner, co-chair of the Truth Plaque Committee, said the committee continues to work on finding and explaining historic locations in Carrboro. The committee hopes to have a fourth plaque ready before the end of the year.
A formal ceremony will be held when the Strayhorn plaque is installed, and the public will be invited to attend.
Michelle Cassell is a seasoned reporter who has covered everything from crime to hurricanes and local politics to human interest over the course of 35 years. As assignment editor, she hopes to encourage writers of a wide range of backgrounds and interests in TLR’s coverage of Southern Orange County news.
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