Salem Academy and College is the oldest continuously operating educational institution for girls and women in the United States. Its tradition of rigorous education for women and responsibility to the community found its roots in the convictions of our eighteenth-century Moravian forebears, who believed that girls and women were entitled to the same education as boys and men. Although this belief was almost unheard of in Colonial America, the citizens of Salem overlooked the conventions of their era and opened a school for girls in 1772—four years before the Declaration of Independence. Responding to an invitation from the leaders of Salem, sixteen women and girls walked 500 miles from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to what we now know as Winston-Salem in order to join the new community and to open the school. Among those intrepid women was Sister Elisabeth Oesterlein, who was appointed the school’s first teacher.
In its early years, Salem was led by the unmarried women of the Moravian community, who were known as “Single Sisters.” The Single Sisters were economically self-sufficient, another rarity for women in the eighteenth century.
From its inception the school has embraced every qualified student regardless of color, creed, or social standing. In 1785, the first African American student enrolled at Salem. In 1826, the school welcomed its first Native American student, Sally Ridge, who was the daughter of a Cherokee chief. Jane Ross, the daughter of another Cherokee chief, was also a student at Salem, but in 1838, she left the school to join her family on the Trail of Tears.
Today, Salem College has the most racially and ethnically diverse student body of any local institution.
The inspiring mission of the Single Sisters has continued for nearly two hundred and fifty years and is evident in the dedication of our faculty, the enthusiasm and commitment of our students, and the academic and professional success of our alumnae. Across America and around the world, Salem’s more than 15,000 alumnae are serving as teachers, physicians, researchers, artists, musicians, inventors, community volunteers, and business executives.
At Salem, we are educating the next generation of leaders in all of these fields. And the extraordinary education that Salem provides continues to be grounded in the Moravian tradition of love and respect for all.