Leaving Downtown Salisbury, headed south-bound on Old Concord Road, you’ll notice a sea of changes. The road itself has been taken down to single lanes, preventing vehicles from passing one another. This means we are driving a little bit slower and taking a little more caution. And as you lean into the brakes you cannot help but to notice the sea of bright orange construction fencing and equipment lining the historic Dixonville Cemetery. While it might be a bit of an eye sore at the moment, there is something pretty magnificent happening just on the other side of that orange wall.
I first learned about the Dixonville Cemetery last year. Located at 210 Old Concord Road, Dixonville Cemetery serves as a burial ground for nearly 500 of Salisbury’s African American citizens, the first being a Ms. Mary Valentine who passed in 1851. Prior to Urban Renewal, this Cemetery was a sort of middle ground that united an entire community of African Americans. This community which lives on in the memories of many local families was known to many as “the East Side,” but to others, it was affectionately called Dixonville. Serving as a final resting ground for community members, Dixonville Cemetery was also the path to and from Lincoln School. The school, formerly known as the Colored Graded School, was established in the late 1800’s and was the first public school opened to African Americans in Salisbury. In fact, it was the only public school opened to African Americans until 1923. The community thrived until urban renewal efforts of the 1960’s swept through and resulted in the demolition of more than 200 structures, changing this tightly-knit community forever.
Since 2010, through an extensive effort by a group of citizens known as the Dixonville-Lincoln Taskforce, this cemetery has yet again become a place for gathering and reflection. The Taskforce, led by Chairwoman Emily Perry, developed a plan for a Memorial project that would honor the history of Dixonville and pay respect to those buried there. The taskforce began by cleaning the grounds, making repairs to gravestone markers and the pathway, and by 2018 they were breaking ground which resulted in the installation of a history sign and granite planters along Old Concord Road. This sign, placed next to the granite planters, details the history of the cemetery and serves as a marker for the seated area and foot path that bisects the property. The project has continued to receive tremendous community-wide support and has now entered into Phase II of the Dixonville-Lincoln Memorial. In addition to the City Council, the National Society of the Colonial Dames of North Carolina, the Blanche and Julian Robertson Family Foundation, the Margaret C. Woodson Foundation, and several other private donors have backed the project.
The plans for Phase II include a memorial walk that leads up and through the cemetery. This path will lead visitors past granite markers with the names of those interred into the cemetery engraved, thereby honoring their lives and histories. Interpretive stops will later be installed along the path, which will lead visitors to a high point within the cemetery where they’ll have an opportunity to reflect and look out over the property. As with everything in 2020, there have been some challenges, but there have also been some fantastic collaborations.
A Collaborative Approach
On Thursday, December 3, 2020 the Dixonville Cemetery became the first site to install a series of audio-enabled sculptural benches, produced as part of an inclusive public art initiative facilitated by Rowan-Cabarrus Community College. Through a $50k grant awarded to the College’s Art & Design Department by the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, three audio embedded benches have been constructed as part of a project titled Here’s My Story. The Here’s My Story bench measures around 15 feet long with a unique S-curve design that provides ample seating on each side. Inscribed on the benches are quotes that, at first glance, elicit feelings of courage and resiliency. Later this month, the bench will be embedded with audio components that will allow visitors to hear the stories of local citizens who have been historically marginalized. The overall goal of these stories is to show how the diversity within Rowan County makes us stronger. The stories will rotate periodically but this first round is set to include stories surrounding the cemetery, told by actual members of the Dixonville community, many of whom have since passed away. Once this phase of construction is complete (hopefully by the end of 2020), visitors are invited to visit this historical site. Beginning at the history sign on Old Concord Road and travelling north, make your way up the interpretive path towards to the Here’s My Story bench. The bench, located at the highest point of the cemetery, will provide a spot to rest as the voices of local citizens share engaging stories about their own histories and experiences in Rowan County past and present.
Once Phase II is complete, Dixonville will pursue the third and final stage of their masterplan which includes the renovation of the old Lincoln School house into a useful space as well as the restoration of the footbridge that once carried children over a creek and to the school. To learn more about the Dixonville Lincoln Memorial, please visit their website.