Salem Academy and College is the oldest continuously operating educational institution for girls and women in the United States. Its traditions of rigorous education for women and responsibility to the community found their 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. The school was founded in 1772—four years before the Declaration of Independence. Responding to an invitation from the community leaders, sixteen women and girls traveled 500 miles, mostly on foot, from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to what we now know as Winston-Salem in order to join the new village. Among those intrepid women was Sister Elisabeth Oesterlein, who was later appointed the school’s first teacher.

In its early years, the girls’ school at Salem was led by the unmarried women of the Moravian community, who were known as Single Sisters. The Single Sisters lived together and were economically self-sufficient, a rarity for women in the eighteenth century.

Salem has educated girls and women from many different ethnic and racial backgrounds since 1785. According to Moravian records, Adam Schumacher requested and received permission that year from the Moravian Elders Conference for a ten-year-old African American girl to be “received into the school.”  The record suggests that she was an enslaved girl. To date, scholars have not confirmed her enslaved status nor discovered her name, but ongoing research may reveal more details about her life. Moravian archivist and author C. Daniel Crews points out that “Educating girls was rare enough in late 18th century America; educating slave girls was radical.”[1]

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.

In 2016, as part of Salem’s commitment to diversity and inclusiveness, President D. E. Lorraine Sterritt created the position of Director of Diversity and Inclusiveness. 

Today, Salem College’s student body ranks among the most racially and ethnically diverse in the state. 

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.


[1] C. Daniel Crews, Neither Slave nor Free: Moravians, Slavery, and a Church That Endures, (Moravian Archives, 1998), 3