Community preserves freed slaves’ Carrboro house for future generations

tgrubb@newsobserver.comFebruary 15, 2014 

  • Want to go?

    Ernie Dollar will speak about “The History of the Strayhorn House” at the Chapel Hill Historical Society from 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 16, on the ground floor of 523 E. Franklin St., Chapel Hill.

    Find more information about the Strayhorn House at

— Dolores Hogan Clark is honored to be part of her home’s history.

Her great-grandparents, freed slaves Nellie and Toney Strayhorn, were one of Carrboro’s founding families. Toney Strayhorn became a skilled mason who helped build many homes and Carrboro Baptist Church – now the Century Center – at 100 N. Greensboro St.

Six generations have lived at 109 Jones Ferry Road: Nellie and Toney Strayhorn built the house, Clark’s grandmother raised her there, and her mother tried to keep it up. Clark, with help from the Preservation Society of Chapel Hill, the town of Carrboro and others, has nearly restored it.

Her daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren live there with her.

“The memories continue to live in these walls,” Clark said. “There was so much love in this home, so much love.”

Former Preservation Society executive director Ernest Dollar started the project, Clark said. The nonprofit group now has easements to protect the house, said his successor Cheri Szcodronski.

“We think it’s such an important story,” she said.

Supporters raised more than $18,000 to save the home, replacing the 50-year-old roof, windows and the living room floor, which sagged and bounced from termite damage, Szcodronski said. They added gutters and a heating and air-conditioning system, and also fixed the collapsed foundation.

One of two rock chimneys fell during the work, exposing the one-room log cabin her great-grandparents built in 1879, Clark said. The town of Carrboro gave them $28,000 from a revolving loan fund to build new, brick chimneys. Szcodronski said the contractors donated a lot of work, too.

The Strayhorns were born slaves on different Orange County plantations in 1850. In a later interview, Nellie Strayhorn recalled working in the fields with her mother when Union soldiers rode by in 1865.

“They 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,’ they told her. They was nice but we was afraid, ‘cause we weren’t used to those blue suits and shiny buttons, and the guns at their sides.”

Toney Strayhorn’s mother was sold after trying to run away when he was a boy. Clark recently found out his neck was branded, so he could be returned to the master if he ever ran away.

The Strayhorns married in 1877, buying 30 acres on Jones Ferry Road. Toney Strayhorn learned to lay bricks and, by the moonlight on his front porch, how to read and write. He later became a minister.

By 1910, the house had two stories with a one-story rear addition. The family raised vegetables, livestock, flowers and fruit to supplement Toney Strayhorn’s masonry income.

The Ku Klux Klan was always a concern, Szcodronski said. They would turn off the lights when they heard the bells on the Klan’s horses. Clark said the family was one of the neighborhood’s two black families and didn’t have too much trouble.

“With their faith, they were able to really feel that they could do what they had to do ... to live in the community,” Clark said.

Toney Strayhorn died in 1934; Nellie Strayhorn in 1950. They were buried in the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery on UNC’s campus.

“I’m trying my best to keep things going and in good condition, because I know how hard my great-grandparents worked and I appreciate all of their efforts,” Clark said. I am now doing my best to try and continue the legacy.”

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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