Wineka: Dixonville Cemetery memorial a work in progress

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 19, 2011

SALISBURY — Dixonville Cemetery is an unassuming place. City crews keep the grass trimmed and mowed. The workers have only a smattering of trees and 28 remaining markers — some broken, others repaired — around which to maneuver.
The cemetery has a gentle topography, sliding away from Old Concord Road as it reaches toward Lincoln School, all boarded up these days.
You know this is Dixonville Cemetery thanks to a relatively new roadside marker, noting it dates at least from the mid-19th century and was a burial ground for African-American slaves and their descendants.
Simple granite retaining walls and landscaping mark the corners along Old Concord Road. Four lanes of daily traffic speed by, seldom slowing for a closer look.
But behind the scenes, a community task force has been meeting for more than a year, discussing the creation of a Dixonville Memorial project and raising questions as to exactly what it must encompass.
Should it be a simple tribute to the people buried here in this oldest city-owned African-American cemetery?
Or should the project say more, somehow bringing history alive again for the small African-American neighborhoods, including Dixonville, that were once known collectively as East End?
The scope, the cost, the process, the politics — all have become factors in what the Dixonville Memorial will become.
A city goal
City officials want something to happen. Salisbury City Council has made the memorial project a stated goal for the past two years.
“We’re right in the midst of trying to make some decision on how to proceed,” says Fred Evans, chairman of the Dixonville Cemetery Memorial Project Task Force, formed by city directive in the summer of 2010.
Evans hopes the task force can begin having something more specific in about two months. He and others remain adamant about the East End’s historic and sentimental significance, obliterated by federally funded urban redevelopment in the 1960s.
“It’s an area that’s been totally forgotten,” Evans says. “Other than Walmart, there’s no focal point on the east side of town.”
The task force’s work could be the beginning, he says, in tying together properties such as the former Lincoln School, historic First Calvary Baptist Church, the cemetery and Lincoln Park Pool.
“It’s going at the pace I expected,” says Emily Perry, a task force member. “I would like for it to move, but knowing how things are and the economy the way it is, I do have faith that in the end it will be worth the wait, and it will be awesome.”
In official city language, the goals for the memorial are three-fold:
• Create a memorial fitting to the site, East End and city of Salisbury.
• Make a permanent record of people known to be buried in Dixonville Cemetery.
• Add to the historial record of the Dixonville-Lincoln area through oral histories and collected documents.
Public input
The task force has collected public input on at least two occasions. In August 2010, some 50 people showed up at First Calvary Baptist Church to share their memories of Dixonville Cemetery and East End in general and give their ideas of what a memorial should entail.
They often spoke of dirt paths, formed by children cutting through the cemetery on their way to and from Lincoln School. They spoke of the need for a monument big enough to attract passing motorists and draw them into the site.
Any monument, the participants said, also should incorporate the documented names of people buried there and pay tribute to those whose names are not known.
Others pushed for the reintroduction of trees and places to sit for reflection.
“It was very exciting to see the energy in that room,” Senior Planner Janet Gapen of the city of Salisbury says.
At the Dixonville-Lincoln Community Association reunion Saturday, Gapen shared some early design suggestions for the cemetery from Perry Howard, program coordinator and associate professor of landscape architecture at N.C. A&T University in Greensboro.
Howard has generated an ambitious long-range concept for the whole area that assumes Lincoln Park Pool will someday be moved to the Civic Center or Town Creek Park area.
If that ever happened, it could create a dramatic sight line and central axis from South Long Street into the cemetery.
But Howard also has developed preliminary site plans that emphasize the importance of paths, the need for parking and access, minimal impact on the cemetery itself, elements that can be appreciated from Old Concord Road, opportunities to tell East End history and a means to identify names of those buried in Dixonville.
Toward that end, a plan might incorporate low and wide granite walls, trees, walks, historical images and text and some kind of vertical monument or piece of public art along the edges of the cemetery — the Old Concord Road side and the boundary closest to the pool.
Paths and stones
“I had in mind something like an obelisk, not too tall, but that you could see the names on the different sides, with possibly some paths redrawn in the cemetery,” task force member Sandra Russell says of her personal idea for a Dixonville Cemetery Memorial.
“A lot of people, if you ask them, that’s what they remember — the paths in the cemetery.”
Russell and fellow task force member Betty Dan Nicholas Spencer grew up in Salisbury, and they both remember its being filled with many more tombstones than it shows today.
“We’re really not sure what has happened to them along the way,” Gapen says.
Several years ago, Spencer’s eagerness to document who was buried in Dixonville, and Russell’s request of the city to consider enhancing the cemetery site led to formation of a committee.
With the city staff’s help, this first group laid out its purpose and goals at a Nov. 29, 2006, meeting. It led to some free ground-penetrating radar investigations in a 20- by 20-foot area by a Charlotte firm.
The radar test gave the committee an idea whether that method could be used later in determining where graves were throughout the site. The committee’s work also led to the sign, repairs to existing headstones and new landscape features.
Funds from the city’s Community Development Block Grant paid for those things.
In 2010, Mayor Susan Kluttz called for establishment of the new task force and asked it to develop a memorial design and fundraising plan in partnership with the city.
In January 2010, Spencer had received word from retired Col. Stafford Pemberton of Washington, D.C., that he would donate $5,000 toward jump-starting efforts for a Dixonville Cemetery memorial. Pemberton grew in East End.
What’s the cost?
Roughly $250,000 had been spent on the Freedman’s Cemetery project at Liberty and Church streets, and it depended mostly on grants and fundraising. That project’s budget had started out at $90,000.
Interestingly, many more people are buried in Dixonville. (See the accompanying story.)
Among other recent city projects, the Firefighters’ Memorial improvements cost $50,000, and the Cotton Mills corner at Church and Fisher streets priced out at $40,000.
City staff invited Howard, the N.C. A&T faculty member, to assist the task force, which essentially has worked without a budget until it has something specific to propose.
Gapen says that if the task force goes with a long-range vision of tying in properties such as the cemetery, school, church and pool property, the project definitely will have to be done in phases.
A potential obstacle to any plan involves the future of Lincoln Park Pool, the city’s only public pool. The construction of a replacement pool elsewhere in the near future seems unlikely.
Meanwhile, some residents have immediate expectations for upgrades at the pool, such as a new splash pad promised earlier by the city.
Another costly roadblock could be the relocation or burying of utility lines that run along the cemetery side of Old Concord Road. Gapen says it would represent a major expense by itself.
According to minutes from the task force’s June 2 meeting, Howard said projected costs for the cemetery improvements could range between $250,000 and $1 million.
Ideas from last year
A few members of the task force traveled to N.C. A&T on Oct. 11, to see seven conceptual designs for the Dixonville Cemetery site from a landscape architecture class.
“Each design,” task force minutes state, “included at least one intriguing characteristic or detail that the committee members gravitated toward.”
Perry, one of the task force members, said her trip to see the students’ work changed her own vision for the cemetery memorial.
People buried in Dixonville were part of a society where the residents looked after each other, says Perry, who grew up in East End. “It was like a huge family,” she adds.
She describes some of the students’ concepts as thinking “way outside the box,” and she likes the idea of creating a memorial that would celebrate the wonderful feel and flavor that much of Dixonville and East End had.
At its Oct. 28, meeting, the task force also received design concepts from three others.
Clyde (formerly Clyde Overcash) presented drawings titled “Dixonville Stones,” featuring a circular cluster of tall stones of varying heights.
He thought the Rowan County granite could be interpreted in several ways.
The circle of stones could mean a circle of community or the many original markers missing from the site, he said as examples.
Text and images also could be etched into the stones, Clyde suggested, according to minutes.
Dwight Garrison and Mark Honeycutt of East Coast Memorials told the task force of their company’s interest as a fabricator and installer of stone and bronze monuments.
Charles Ramsey proposed a circular arrangement of black granite stones around a fountain and seating area. His model included other paths and an entrance marked by a stone arch along Old Concord Road.
Grass-roots effort
Russell, the task force member, hopes that when a memorial plan is ready and fundraising begins, it will be “a grass-roots type of thing.”
“When the swimming pool was built, all the dollars and quarters added up,” Russell recalls. “That’s the approach we will have to take, with a look to grants, too.”
Russell grew up in East End and has lived on this side of town for most of her life. She thinks a lot of African-Americans in Salisbury don’t realize they probably have ancestors buried in the Dixonville Cemetery.
“Unless you are personally affected, you don’t know who or what’s over there,” she says.
Russell has a brother buried somewhere in Dixonville Cemetery. The only way she used to know how to find his grave site was by locating a particular tree.
That tree is gone now, she says, but not the opportunity to remember him and remember the way East End once was.
Contact Mark Wineka at or 704-797-4263.