EAST SPENCER — It’s likely that Essie K. Foxx’s resiliency, and her drive to help others, come from her years of raising children.
One of 12 children herself, she raised 13 children of her own.
“I grew from a baby to a woman, raising children,” Foxx said.
Family friend Jean Kennedy, retired teacher, said the Foxx house was a neighborhood gathering spot.
One time, Foxx said, when a disturbance broke out among students at North Rowan High School and she went to find out what had happened, she was asked how many of the kids around her were her children,
“I told him, ‘All of ‘em!” Foxx said.
Mother, community activist and deaconess are among her many roles.
She is perhaps best known for her work in preserving the Paul Laurence Dunbar Center, the former school and community center on Long Street, within sight of her current home.
Many things changed, Foxx said, when former African American schools shut down following integration.
She said that the loss of local schools was a blow to the community, and organized the community in response.
“We decided we’d start meeting down at the school board when they had their meetings,” Foxx said.
Foxx credits the effort to have prominent East Spencer men, “especially ministers,” attend and show their support with preserving the former Dunbar school.
Today, the building has a reputation for being a trouble spot that Foxx said is unwarranted.
She focuses instead on the good that was done there: giving young people a place to go for recreation, keeping youth off the streets and offering an additional site for classes.
Mom and activist
Born October 31, 1931 and the oldest of 12 children, Foxx worked in textiles, as a domestic and in other manufacturing jobs.
Above all else, friends say, she brought a mother’s perspective to her work ... especially when that work involved being an activist.
“Well, a lot of people say I was a troublemaker, and that I was outspoken,” Foxx said. “And I was.”
Foxx talked of helping organize protests, of strategizing for a downtown Salisbury business boycott — even the plans she helped make to picket the offices of the Salisbury Post.
“Whatever I thought was going help us, that’s what I thought we would do,” Foxx said.
She said she spoke up because others wouldn’t, or couldn’t.
Some, she said, were in fear for their jobs if they spoke up about injustices they saw in the community. “They had to keep their families eating,” Foxx said.
At the same time, Foxx said, not every change seemed positive.
Foxx said that, at first, she didn’t like the thought of integrated schools — fearing that much of the schools’ own culture and identity would be lost.
“We had wonderful kids out here in the community,” Foxx said, especially at Dunbar School.
In 1969, son Howard “Butch” Foxx, Jr. graduated from Dunbar — member of the old school’s last graduating class.
“We had doctors, lawyers, admirals and everybody else who came out of that little building,” Foxx said. “Some great kids came from Dunbar and Price high schools.”
Later, as Title V employee at the community center that was opened in the former school, Foxx said she worked to keep kids off the streets.
Also, she said, “We had the meal site, we had adult education,” Foxx said.
Foxx volunteered to arrive early and stay late on summer camp days so parents could fit the day camp into their work schedules.
In the years since, the Dunbar Center has gone from being a positive point in the community to a focus of criticism, which Foxx said is not fair to those who worked hard there.
There were allegations of drug use, vandalism and other safety issues at the Dunbar Center, which leaders said were unfounded.
For her part, Foxx said there were many naysayers who, she believes, just wanted to see the school torn down.
The complex went into foreclosure in 2011. Its future remains uncertain today.
But Foxx said she hopes the former school may once more become a community center, helping to keep young people off the streets and helping foster education.
“Where there’s life, there’s hope,” she said. “... It may not be in my lifetime, but I truly believe the doors of the Dunbar Center will reopen.”
Building a legacy
Daughter Tina Foxx Wallace said her mother “set a great example for us to follow.”
“She’s building her own legacy,” Wallace said.
“People recognize her efforts and the things she’s done to make the East Spencer community a better place to live.”
“She’s always been like a mother to all of us,” said her sister, Catherine Bradley.
Throughout the years she was working in the community, Foxx said, her children made their home a neighborhood gathering place.
Now, Essie Foxx said, those same children, grown up now, still come visit.
If they live out of town, they make her home one of their stops, she said.
Foxx is also a lifelong member of Southern City Tabernacle AME Zion Church, where she has served on the Legacy of a Leader committee, the steward board, the deaconess board and too many committees to name here.
Sunday, she was honored with a surprise reception at the church, where she was presented with a plaque and placed on the emeritus list.
Kennedy said education “is (Foxx’s) heart,” also recalling the days when the youth of the community would gather at her home.
She said that Foxx’s gift was the ability to communicate — “to make your point, and still maintain your dignity,” Kennedy said.
“Mrs. Foxx was one of the leaders there at the church, and in the community,” said the Rev. Calvin Miller, former pastor of Southern City Tabernacle.
“She could rally the youth, the community, the adults in that community,” he said. “She was the heartbeat of the community at that time.
East Spencer Mayor Barbara Mallett, also a fellow parishioner and friend, said Foxx’s positivity and support of the town have been a blessing.
“No matter where she goes, she tells people, ‘I love East Spencer,’” Mallett said.
That support shows itself most strongly, Mallett said, in the biennial Dunbar School reunion and parade — an event that Foxx was instrumental in founding.
Those reunions, Foxx said, bring in many people who care for East Spencer and who want to see the town continue to prosper.
Today, she said, many people speak poorly of problems in East Spencer.
But, Foxx said, there is also much love, and much good.
“I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else,” Foxx said.
Her family calls her a “warrior,” and one who’s worked hard to better the lives of others.
Foxx, for her part, talks of the love her family and churched have shown her at age 80 ... and is already wondering out loud how they’ll celebrate her 90th birthday.
She doesn’t plan to stop fighting anytime soon.
Contact Hugh Fisher via the editor’s desk at 704-797-4244.