Hidden Town Project: Uncovering Old Salem’s Unique African American History

Few topics are more sensitive than the history of enslaved people in the South. But at Winston-Salem’s historic Old Salem Museums & Gardens, researchers are leaning into the conversation. Their goal? To reveal the hidden legacies of the African American people who lived, worked, struggled and achieved here — and restore their rightful place in our history.

Building on decades of archeological, genealogical, historical and ethnographic data, historians at Old Salem feel a special responsibility to reclaim and reveal the impact of these unknown African Americans.

Called Hidden Town, the groundbreaking project draws on more than hundreds of first-person interviews, thousands of photos and more than 1 million artifacts ranging from maps and historical data to journal entries, preserved objects and personal memoirs. The goal is to reconstruct a portrait of life for African American citizens that has been largely overlooked, much like a hidden town living underneath the surface.

Launched in 2017, Hidden Town was always intended as a visitor-centric experience. Starting with a single room designed for quiet reflection in what was once an enslaved family’s living quarters, Hidden Town has slowly infused the lost stories of 18th and 19th-century Salem’s African American community in every aspect of the living Museum. The experience now includes an immersive, first-person audio, video, interpretive and living narrative of historic Salem’s African American community.

Experiencing Hidden Town

Visitors begin their Hidden Town journey at Old Salem’s historic log church where they watch a short film for context. Next, visitors listen to pre-recorded narratives inspired by the lives of 10 enslaved individuals. Stories are told in first person, and feel as if each historical figure is talking directly to you. Some of the stories are emotional and painful  to hear. Outside the log church, visitors can pause to reflect at more than 31 gravesites, many of which remain unmarked.

From there, a costumed interpreter in period dress guides visitors into the historic St. Phillips Moravian Church to retell the story of Old Salem’s public pronouncement of the end of slavery in the very room where it happened.

As Old Salem’s Director of Moravian History Martha Hartley explained, “This is a connection to history like none other. St. Phillips is the oldest African American Moravian Church in the United States. And here you are, sitting in the same pews where enslaved people first heard they were free. You hear the story of Happy Hill, the largest African American neighborhood and the freedmen who established one of the first schools for black children in the country. You hear the impact of these lives often for the first time. People weep. It is real. It is moving. It is truth in history. It’s incredibly powerful,” she said.

A Unique View of “Urban Slavery”

Historic Old Salem is a living museum, which means it uses costumed interpreters, first-person narratives, audio tours, live demonstrations, artifacts, baking, cooking, music, gardening, and other hands-on activities to paint a truly immersive portrait of early-American Moravian life for visitors. For Hidden Town, researchers wanted to do more than just acknowledge the complex history of slavery within the southern agricultural community.

“Part of our work in uncovering Hidden Town is to authentically reveal what life was like for these individuals,” Martha said. “In 1753, Moravians struggled with the idea of inequality even as slavery spread in the rural south. Just before the Civil War about 20 percent of the town’s population was enslaved, much like the rest of North Carolina,” she said.

Because Old Salem was a religious community, all decisions for the community had to be approved by the church. In the beginning, no individual could own another person. Gradually, the church began hiring both free and enslaved laborers to work the land. Those relationships grew, and in some cases, enslaved people went on to join the church, becoming full and equal members of the spiritual community, despite their very real human bondage.

“This simply didn’t happen other places. Here, enslaved people lived an urban life. They lived in houses alongside the rest of the community. Some learned several languages, or started families, or mastered professional trades. Many learned to read and write, joined in worship, earned their own money. It was complicated, flawed and cause for deep conversation then, and now,” Martha said.

When You Go, You Should Know

The Hidden Town Experience is part of the regular admission to historic Old Salem Museums & Gardens. To see all available ticket options, as well as an overview of upcoming programs, visit:
https://www.oldsalem.org/visit/tours-tickets/

Old Salem Museums & Gardens
900 Old Salem Road
Winston-Salem, NC 27101
336-721-7300

Hours of Operation
Tuesday – Saturday: 9:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Sunday: 1:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Closed Mondays

To help as a research volunteer for the Hidden Town Project, click here to fill out an application.

If you have any information, or if you are a descendant of an enslaved individual, please email us at Hiddentown@oldsalem.org .