As part of the 250 Celebration History Committee, Michelle Lawrence is writing a monthly history column on Salem Academy and College.
This is the first in a series of columns designed to highlight the history and traditions of Salem Academy and College as we approach the 250th anniversary of the founding of the institution in April 2022. Beginning this fall, Salem will spend the academic year in celebration, starting with a Kick-off Concert in September 2021.
The Road to the 250th is meant to recall the 500-mile journey of the 12 Older Girls and four Single Sisters who travelled from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to the Wachovia territory in North Carolina in 1766. These young Moravian women and girls were about the same age as Academy and College students today. Their journey was motivated by their faith and the call to service. In Moravian communities, everyone was called to serve. No one was supposed to be idle, so a basic education was considered to be essential for girls and boys alike. When Moravians formed new communities, meeting spaces for worship and classes were usually the first to be built.
The first students in April 1772, all under the age of 10, met under the supervision of Elisabeth Oesterlein (born in 1749) in the Gemeinhaus on the corner of Salem Square where Main Hall stands today. For nearly 250 years, girls and women have been educated in this very same spot. The buildings on the north east corner of the square today (Inspector’s House, Home Moravian Church, and Main Hall) appear almost unchanged from the photos taken in the mid-19th Century. This is a testament to the importance of education in the Salem community.
We can learn much from the first students and teachers of the girls school. These include teachers, such as Elizabeth Oesterlein, and students who returned to teach, such as Martha Miksch, who was the first in a long line of teachers who began their Salem careers as students.
Academy students in this year’s Jan Term class The Remarkable Women of Early Salem had the following to say: The girls and women of 1766 showed courage to act on their beliefs. They were bold enough to travel far from home to an unknown place and determined to make a new life in Wachovia in order to serve others according to their Moravian faith. Each year, we ask Salem students to emulate the girls and women of Salem’s past in their dedication to education and service to others.
Last summer, The Washington Post ran a story about Daniel Smith, an 88-year-old Washingtonian whose father was enslaved. Slavery ended almost 166 years ago in the United States, but the story of Mr. Smith and others like him show how present the legacy of slavery is. Many living Americans are only a generation or two removed from slavery.
In the 21st Century, we are still coming to grips with the truth of our past and the legacy of racism. Why? The answer lies in the fact that the victors get to write history.
After the failure of Reconstruction, Confederate leaders and segregationists wrote the story of the antebellum south. The myth of the lost cause and the image of a genteel southern culture became the main story in place of the truth of dehumanizing violence. The myth and the stereotypes were told so well, partially through American entertainment and advertising, that they became the dominant image of Black people across America. They contributed to the apology for slavery that argues slaves received free food, housing, and medical care. Of course, these things were not free; they came at the cost of people’s families, a chance at an education, and the right to control their bodies.
For many years, Salem celebrated its current diversity while neglecting its segregated past. In this century, more and more institutions have grappled with the truth of their past connections to and benefits from slavery. Locally, the Southern Province of the Moravian Church apologized for its participation in slavery in 2006. College students in 2017 and Academy alumnae in 2020 challenged our community to conduct an honest investigation of the institution’s relationship with slavery and the legacy of racism. Salem Academy and College issued an apology for its use of enslaved labor in 2018, and The Anna Maria Samuel Project was created as direct results of this generation’s refusal to accept the myth.
Today, Salem Academy and College is working with Universities Studying Slavery and with Old Salem Museum & Gardens’ Hidden Town Project. This work began in 2017 and is continuing through Jan Term internships and classes at the Academy as well as public programs on campus. Forsyth County’s Historic Resources Commission has approved new historical markers on Church Street highlighting those enslaved men and women who worked at or attended Salem. There are also plans to provide additional information in the Single Sisters Museum, which will be open to the public at no cost. While campus is closed, you can access information about past research and current projects by visiting The Anna Maria Samuel Project.
Michelle Hopkins Lawrence
Co-chair, The Anna Maria Samuel Project: Race, Remembrance, and Reconciliation at Salem Academy and College
History Department Salem Academy