CARRBORO - On a steamy Wednesday recently Dolores Clark took refuge in the small, cool parlor of her home on Jones Ferry Road.
A smallish upright piano stood against one wall, and a fireplace was recessed in another. Old-fashioned armchairs and a pair of settees welcomed visitors, and shelves held various family memorabilia. Overlooking the room from above sofa was a striking pair of portraits of her great-grandfather and great-grandmother, Toney and Nellie Strayhorn, who built the house in 1879.
"I call this my Fancy Room," she said. "I promised my mother I would live here in this house until I pass and take care of her antiques."
The peril to that plan was evident in the floor underneath her feet. The original wooden floor had uneven sags and swells, and it bounced slightly underfoot when you walked.
"Termites," said Ernest Dollar, executive director of the Preservation Society of Chapel Hill, who sat opposite Clark in the parlor. "The floors need to be replaced, and at the same time we need to attack the termites."
The Preservation Society is trying to raise money to do just that. The Strayhorn House is the society's first preservation project in Carrboro, and it's the first dedicated to preserving a historic African-American family's home.
Dollar said he recognized early on the Strayhorn House's significance, which derives largely from the remarkable couple who built it and raised their family in it; the handsome but well-worn white house is on the National Register of Historic Places study list.
He knew, too, that the house was in trouble: foundation problems, poorly sealed windows, deteriorating wiring ... the litany of ailments that befall old homes when their owners can't afford to make necessary repairs.
But when he realized that Dolores Clark was the owner, that sealed it. Clark worked for many years as a nurse at Chapel Hill Pediatrics.
"I went, 'Wait a minute, this is the woman who took care of me since I was a baby,'" Dollar said. "She's taken care of a generation of Chapel Hillians. Between the historical importance of the house and that personal connection, my heartstrings were pulled right out of my body."
Toney and Nellie Strayhorn were both born into slavery; when he was 11, Toney watched as his mother was sold and taken away on the Hillsborough auction block. "Some of us seen hard times," Nellie said later.
After the Civil War ended slavery in 1865, they met, married and acquired a patch of land west of Chapel Hill.
"They built this room first - the original walls were logs - and started a family," Clark said. "My great-grandfather learned to be a brick mason, like a number of the other men in the family. They did a lot of the masonry work at the university.
"He taught himself to read and write right out there on that porch in the moonlight, and he became a minister. He became a visionary leader in the community, widely respected for his integrity."
Toney help found what was originally called Rock Hill Baptist Church, Clark said, which eventually became First Baptist Church. He and Nellie raised crops, cattle, hogs and chickens, and Nellie sold milk and butter throughout the area.
What was most remarkable about their relatively prosperous life was that they managed to build and maintain it during an era of terrible racial violence and brutal discrimination, through Reconstruction, Post-Reconstruction and into the Jim Crow era.
"That may be the most amazing thing about them," Dollar said. "They prospered at a time when not many black people were able to do that. Black families were being pushed to the margins, but the Strayhorns managed to stay and build their lives and families during a very dark time in our history."
Toney Strayhorn died when Clark was just a year old, but family members have told her how he doted on her.
"I don't remember him, but I've heard stories about how he loved me so much," she said. "Nobody could treat me badly, because he wouldn't let them."
She remembers her great-grandmother very well; Nellie died in 1950 at the age of 100.
"She was a wonderful great-grandmother," Clark said. "She taught me very well, with respect and lots of love."
The family legacy is sustained also through a stunning collection of photographs dating back to the turn of the century and beyond. They chronicle a large and close-knit family, and the house they called home.
Recognizing the importance of the Strayhorn House, the town of Carrboro not long ago granted Clark $28,000 for repairs. That money had to be used for an unexpected repair, though, after the house's chimney collapsed last summer and had to be replaced.
The Preservation Society has been raising money to help, but it's slow going. Some donations have come from Clark's former colleagues at Chapel Hill Pediatrics and other individuals, and the society earlier this summer was able to pay for all the windows to replaced with new energy-efficient ones.
"I'm on a fixed income, and I've been so grateful to the town of Carrboro and of course to Ernie, who has done so much, and to everyone who has helped us," Clark said. "I love this house. I plan to stay in it until I pass away."
Now the society is trying to raise $2,500 to put toward replacing the floor and eliminating the termites. She and the Preservation Society have placed covenants on the house to ensure that it remains protected - but it has to be restored to good health first.
"It's been subject to the unforeseen disasters that lurk in the bowels of every historic home," Dollar said. "But the story this house holds is a special one, and it would be a terrible shame to lose it."