Linda Duyer: History behind the Church Street Mural

It is impossible to separate myself from the story of the Church Street Mural, so I won’t even try, because for me that mural, prominently displayed at Church Street and North Salisbury Boulevard, is intensely personal.

The muralist Paul Boyd III utilized images from a copy of my book “‘Round the Pond,” about the history of two African American neighborhoods surrounding that location. It has been awe-inspiring to see the history I compiled decades ago as bigger than life.

Boyd has created something truly special. The mural was a collaborative effort stemming in part from a public brainstorming meeting held earlier in the year. It is difficult to satisfy everyone with a public mural, nor can a mural depict every desired element. But the consensus of showing past community members associated with the mural’s location won out, with fascinating results.

The “pond” in the title of the book refers to Humphreys Lake which existed in the vicinity and disappeared in 1909. The title symbolizes the neighborhoods known as Georgetown and Cuba which were virtually eliminated by the 1960s after Salisbury Boulevard and the Route 50/Salisbury Parkway sliced through the area.

The Cuba area was on and next to the former lake-bottom land. There are people around who still refer to the Cuba neighborhood as “’round the pond,” as an area where a lake existed long ago. Georgetown centered along Church Street.

Today, the Charles H. Chipman Cultural Center, once the John Wesley M.E. Church, remains as one of the few remnants of those neighborhoods.

Between the mural site and the cultural center was once the St. Paul AME Zion Church; a block away, the First Baptist Church. There were stores, schools, residences, a Masonic Hall, a black-owned bank, and so much more.

The five depicted represent the many who lived and worked as educators, businessmen, clergy, laborers, doctors, contactors, servicemen, seamstresses and more. Three lived in the vicinity, one was a student (and later an educator) and attended the John Wesley Church, one was a principal and teacher.

Sergeant William Butler, who received the American Distinguished Service Cross and the French Croix de Guerre for his valor during World War I, lived on Water Street. Professor Charles Chipman served as the principal in the segregated Salisbury High School which had its beginnings within a couple of blocks of the mural site. James Stewart operated a funeral business located directly across from the John Wesley church, a business which eventually became the Jolley funeral business. Dr. George Herbert Sembly, who began practicing medicine in Salisbury about 1926, had his residence and office directly across Church Street from the mural site.

Elaine Brown is the only person on the mural who I met personally. She was responsible for my earliest historical research of those neighborhoods, and the book is dedicated to her. A teacher in the segregated schools, she was retired when renovations for the cultural center were nearly complete. She passed before the formal opening but was around when the Chipman Foundation received the matching funds to complete the project. “I’m so happy, I could just dance!” said Elaine, holding a cane and suffering from debilitating health issues at the time. 

Boyd included the railroad in his design, particularly appropriate for different reasons. The mural site is a short distance from the railroad where the older depot at Church Street and Railroad Avenue once serviced Salisbury, just two blocks south of the newer historic depot known as Union Station.

Elaine Brown would love the use of the railroad symbolizing the link between the past and the present. But for me, the beauty of the mural is what it does for the future.

Now, motorists passing that busy intersection are going to wonder about the five people shown on that mural. They may stop to find out, or they may look up the information or ask someone. They might learn about the rest of the Church Street areas, or about the remaining buildings, like the mural building itself, the Bradley Building with the anvil and horseshoe adorning the second floor exterior. They might learn that Frederick Douglass once arrived at the depot and passed the site of the mural as he moved toward Downtown to speak at the county courthouse. They might learn that Church Street was once paved in yellow bricks.

That is the magic of the mural – an interactive work of art engaging the people of today into learning more about the area and role models of yesterday inspiring those of tomorrow. The mural teaches us, something Elaine Brown did all her life and future teachers will continue to do.

Now every time I gaze up at Boyd’s beautiful mural, I smile imagining Elaine grinning with pride, knowing she’s seeing it and saying, “I’m so happy, I could just dance!”

Linda Duyer lives in Salisbury. Contact her at lindaduyer1@yahoo.com.

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