Photos speak volumes about Salisbury history

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 18, 2008

By Deirdre Parker Smith
If you saw the 2007 exhibit of Dixonville photos at Rowan Public Library, you got but a taste of Betty Dan Nicholas Spencer’s extensive project.
Now you can see the entire thing in “Remembering Dixonville and East End, Salisbury, North Carolina.” The clothbound book of black and white photos is a collection of those taken in the 1960s to document Dixonville and East End, which were scheduled for urban renewal.
Most of what you’ll see is long gone, bulldozed to make way for new public housing units. The photos were taken by a government representative to document the area before the demolition. Spencer used the set of photos donated to Rowan Public Library by the family of the late Wiley Lash, former mayor of Salisbury.
She was researching Dixonville cemetery when her curiosity was piqued by the photos. She was able to talk to a number of people who once lived in the houses or knew people who lived there.
She had access to Sanborne maps, which plotted the entire area and helped her organize the book. The maps were made for fire insurance records.
Without really announcing the book is ready, Spencer has already sold almost 100 copies. “Someone wanted me to do a book after the exhibit” at the library, Spencer said. “And they told people to give me a $20 deposit on the book … I’ve had those for almost two years and all those people have their books. Some have called for a second or third book.
“It’s really nostalgic for people there, black and white,” she said.
“I can go see where I grew up and where I went to school, but all that is gone for them. … The only thing left is Lincoln School and the cemetery. Some people say they can’t even find where their houses used to be.
“People never thought they’d have pictures to show their children.”
The striking thing about the photos is their absolute simplicity. They were shot simply as documentation, with little emotion, but they reveal much.
Some show unpainted shotgun-style shacks, some show houses whose design likely came from a Sears catalog, as did many houses in Rowan County at the turn of the century.
There are two-story bungalows, grocery stores, service stations, churches. Some houses were obviously vacant at the time; others show residents on the porch; still others show some fine cars from the era.
“It’s fascinating, the style of the houses, particularly when you research the old deeds. … You can find where former slaves brought property right after the Civil War.
“People have been so emotional and responsive,” she said.
Salisbury’s main post office takes up space where 17 East End houses once stood.
“It was just a fluke,” Spencer said of the book. “It came from the exhibit. It is one of the most satisfying projects I’ve ever done.”
Urban renewal has shifted from demolition to preservation now, but Spencer praises Salisbury for what the city did in that era. “I know it was emotional to be uprooted, but it also improved living conditions,” and the city was willing to use that land for residential rather than commercial development.
A section at the end of the book contains amazing photos of the people of the neighborhood, one of the most haunting being of Rebecca Kennedy, wife of Benson Montgomery, from about 1913. Rebecca has a faraway look on her face, probably from standing so long for the photo. A woman is seated at her left, looking a little irritated.
Another shows a smiling Dinette Phillips as a child, sitting next to a laughing adult, Eunice Walker Krider.
Spencer writes some history of the area and its people, and organizes the book by street in the old neighborhoods. Anyone who lived in Salisbury during the 1960s and ’70s, and even today, will find some of the homes familiar, along with many of the names.
Spending time with these old photos and learning about an area now paved over and rebuilt is a great history lesson and a reminder of where we were.
Spencer is selling the book, which was printed on heavy stock by Josten’s, herself. “I typeset the book myself; I picked the paper, all those details. … My idea was to give people a book they would be proud of, that’s why it’s hardcover.”
At $45, the book is not making a profit. Putting it in a bookstore would require a price markup, so the seller can make a little money. Rowan Museum has a few copies, as does Clyde Overcash.
To get a copy of the book, write: Betty Dan Spencer, 280 Topsail Road, Salisbury, NC 28146-2146 or call 704-636-6998.