Often times, when people think about art, the first images that come to mind are the classic oil paintings of master painters like Monet, Degas or Picasso. Some may even conjure images of sculpture or pottery. It sometimes slips our minds that our most well-known and coveted artworks here in the United States come to us in the form of a landmark. The most widely known perhaps, is Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. Memorials, such as this one, preserve our history in a way that helps us all to understand the magnitude and importance of our country’s history and the freedoms we have fought and died for to attain. They attract visitors from around the world and they initiate a kind of conversation that otherwise may have never been had. Here in Rowan County history is plentiful, and oddly enough, a big part of that history lies in a grassy knoll located just behind Salisbury National Cemetery.
When I first moved to Rowan County just over a decade ago, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the historic Salisbury National Cemetery. I was immediately struck by the brightly colored stones that cast perfectly uniform shadows across the grass. There were crews of people out blowing debris from the sidewalks and visitors putting American flags on the graves of those they had lost. I looked forward to driving past it. And then one day, I noticed a plot of land just behind the cemetery where there appeared to be more markers on the ground, only these markers told a different story all together.
Not Your Average Cemetery
The Dixonville Cemetery, located at 210 Old Concord Road, is nearly two acres of broken grave markers. It 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. For most people a cemetery elicits feelings of grief and loss. It represents a void in our lives where someone we love used to be. But for the folks who grew up in the Dixonville Community, this cemetery represents something different altogether. For them it represents childhood memories, community togetherness, the history of some of Salisbury’s most influential leaders, and a path to something more.
More than 50 years ago, Dixonville Cemetery was a sort of middle ground that united an entire community of African Americans. This vibrant community, known only as Dixonville, utilized the cemetery in a wide variety of ways. It served as a final resting ground for community members and as a pathway that the children of Dixonville traveled 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. For these children, the Dixonville Cemetery elicits fond memories of picking fruits and nuts from trees along the path and laughing with their friends as they traveled back and forth to the school house. 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. Families were displaced, roads were widened, and the community formerly known as Dixonville was never again the same. In 2010, those who can still remember life before urban renewal, along with other community members including then Mayor Susan Kluttz, joined together to form the Dixonville Lincoln Memorial Taskforce. Since then, the Taskforce, headed up by Emily Perry, has worked to interpret the history of the Dixonville Community and to develop a memorial honoring the history, the community, and especially the many citizens who rest in Dixonville Cemetery.
A groundbreaking ceremony was held in May of last year with Chairwoman Emily Perry at the lead. In the press release, Perry stated, “This is an exciting day for our City. The groundbreaking is not only significant to individuals who lived or currently reside in the east end, but to all Salisbury residents. It is important for citizens to know the history of urban renewal and the result it has on today’s Salisbury.
The knowledge of understanding the past can have a profound effect on our present. I commend the efforts of the City, Task Force, and North Carolina A&T State University for their support.” The taskforce began by cleaning the grounds, making repairs to gravestone markers and the pathway, and most notably, by installing 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. And while these improvements have marked a significant change, this is only the beginning.
The Master Plan for the Dixonville Lincoln Memorial includes 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. The final phase of the Master Plan includes the renovation of the old Lincoln Schoolhouse into a useful space, as well as the restoration of the footbridge that once carried children over a creek and to the school.
The City of Salisbury has enthusiastically supported this project and has committed $100,000. As Salisbury’s Urban Design Planner Alyssa Nelson explained, “the Dixonville-Lincoln Memorial is so important in remembering Salisbury’s history, paying respect to those buried at Dixonville Cemetery, as well as being a catalyst for furthering progress in the East End Neighborhood.” 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 other several private donors have backed the project. With a total estimated cost of over $500,000, the taskforce has initiated a GoFundMe page as well as a variety of other campaigns in an effort to raise the needed funds for this unique and enriching project. They have already raised over $230,000 towards their overall goal!
For many of us, the charm of Rowan County lies in its ability to mesh the past and the present in new and innovative ways, and the Dixonville-Lincoln Memorial is a perfect example of what can happen when we use the Arts to celebrate our history. For more information or to contribute to the Dixonville Lincoln Memorial, please visit the website here. You can also see the progress and stay updated on fundraising efforts by following the Taskforce on Facebook.