Depending on when you graduated, this day evokes different memories of Salem. For the past 40 years, the celebrations have been marked by the image of Academy seniors in white cap and gown and College seniors in black cap and gown processing into the May Dell. Salem’s community gathers annually to celebrate the origins of Salem Academy and College in 1772, but who were the founders and how has the celebration changed over the decades?
The spring Founders Day celebration that we know today began in 1980. The use of April 30 as a founding date is based on Moravian Church records, which note that the first schoolgirls were taught in a room of Salem’s Gemeinhaus in April 1772. Unfortunately, the record does not include the specific date when the first class was held. In the 20th century, the decision was made to use the last day of the month when the rents were calculated as the founding date. For a short period of time in the 20th century, the Founders Day celebration was moved to February to commemorate the date in 1866 when Salem Female Academy was incorporated by the legislature of North Carolina.
For many years, however, Founders Day celebrations were held in October. The fall date was chosen to honor the decision on October 31, 1802 to “call” the first inspector to create a boarding school open to the daughters of Moravians and non-Moravians. The call process, still used today to appoint ministers of Moravian congregations, was used because the first 12 leaders of the school were ministers. As Margaret Blair McCuiston, College Class of 1914, described it:
“I have vivid recollections of the Founders Day Observances from 1907 to 1913. We had a holiday from classes. The Boarding pupils were taken on an outing. Sometimes the day pupils (of which I was one) joined them. The observance was (then) always in October but sometimes the exact day was changed.”
By the mid-20th century, the annual fall celebration of Founders Day was, in the words of one College alumna from the class of 1980, “the big fun” day with class themes, songs, skits, and costumes. In the academic year 1979–1980, the name of this event was changed to Fall Fest, a very popular College tradition still practiced today, and the Founders Day celebration was moved to April.
According to the program for the first spring Founders Day celebration in 1980, then as today, all Academy and College students gathered for the senior procession, which was followed by the Founders Day Address delivered by Dr. Dale H. Gramley, who had retired just nine years earlier. Dr. Gramley was Salem’s 13th president and the first who was not an ordained minister.
Regarding the question of who is celebrated on Founders Day, there is no one answer. Elisabeth Oesterlein was the first teacher, but she did not start the school on her own. In 1922, Adelaide Fries, 1890 graduate of Salem College and renowned Moravian archivist, argued that the founders were the fathers who hired Oesterlein to educate their daughters. Others look to the Moravian congregation of Salem, which is celebrating its own 250th anniversary this fall, and to the Single Sisters, who taught generations of Salem students and provided financial support to the school. Certainly, the existence of Salem Academy and College would not have been possible if not for the unusual Moravian practice of educating girls, as well as boys. So, the answer is, Salem, like many lasting institutions, was founded by a community of dedicated people working together toward a common goal.
Michelle Hopkins Lawrence
Co-chair of The Anna Maria Samuel Project: Race, Remembrance, and Reconciliation at Salem Academy and College
History Department Salem Academy