Exploring Early Slave Life In Old Salem’s Hidden Town

“When I first arrived at Old Salem, I discovered the long tradition of wonderful scholarship and research related to Africans and African Americans in early Salem–most of which was about St. Philips African Moravian Church,” Old Salem Museums & Gardens President and CEO Frank Vagnone said. “However, I soon learned about the vast amount of untapped documentation and research about enslaved and free Africans and African Americans in Salem that exists in archives, collections, and our physical historic site.”

“I realized that this powerful story could begin to be shared in a more comprehensive way that is unique among historic sites in this country. It is really that important. No other heritage site is investigating this narrative at this scale,” he added.

Centuries before Old Salem was restored in 1950 and turned into one of the most highly acclaimed historic districts in the country, Salem was a budding town that was quickly becoming the central town of Wachovia. Although the early Wachovia Moravians viewed the ownership of enslaved people with apprehension, by the end of the 18th century the number of free and enslaved blacks in Salem continued to grow.

Although of great debate within the Moravian community, the practice of slavery slowly increased, even against the town’s religious beliefs. It is known that “Sam” was the first enslaved individual purchased by the Wachovia Administration on August 9, 1769. At its height, there were approximately 160 enslaved men, women, and children in Salem. Some lived in their owner’s homes while others lived in about 40 slave dwellings in town. Following the Civil War, freedmen established the first school for black children in the county and established a neighborhood across Salem Creek, now called “Happy Hill.”
Through continued research, Old Salem Inc. has worked to understand the complicated use of enslaved Africans and their contributions to the growth and development of Salem, all while going unnoticed in the spaces they lived, worked and played: spaces hidden in plain sight, known as Hidden Town.

These histories involve the complicated history of enslaved populations in building the town and contributing to the mercantile prosperity of Salem. The first goal was to locate the sites of dwelling places of enslaved people throughout the historic district and to archaeologically investigate the sites to fully integrate them into the visitor experience. The second goal is to connect with descendants of the Salem enslaved population.
Even in these early stages of the research, it is becoming clear that by revealing and interpreting the dwellings, lives, families, and behaviors of the urban enslaved, Winston-Salem’s Old Salem Historic District might become one of the most important and comprehensive national historic and archaeological sites relative to urban slavery.
Old Salem Museums & Gardens is quickly becoming seen as one of the most innovative heritage sites in the United States. Its museums–the Historic Town of Salem, the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA), and the Gardens at Old Salem–engage visitors in an educational and memorable historical experience about those who lived, worked, and were enslaved in early Salem, North Carolina. Old Salem Museums & Gardens is located at 600 South Main Street in Winston-Salem. For more information call (336) 721-7300 or visit oldsalem.org.

Want to get involved? Old Salem is eager to hear from anyone who has any information, pictures, stories, or ideas to add to the Hidden Town Project as well as information on descendants. Individuals with information should contact the Hidden Town Committee by emailing Hiddentown@OldSalem.org.

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