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19 Sep 2015

The African American Experience in Old Salem, North Carolina

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September 19, 2015 Category: Travel Posted by:

ABOVE PHOTO: Church interior

By Renée S. Gordon

“In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; and in all things, love.” –Moravian Motto

There is no one universal black slavery experience. Each person’s story is different, impacted by where a person was enslaved, who enslaved them, their gender and a quixotic and inexhaustible menu of circumstances that might change over time. Through travel to sites with particular resonance for African Americans it is possible to immerse yourself in the lives and singular experiences of people of African descent and nowhere is the journey more unique than in Old Salem, North Carolina.

Documents indicate that blacks accompanied Hernando de Soto in 1540 and Juan Pardo in 1567 on their exploratory expeditions into what is now North Carolina. Pardo followed the trail blazed by de Soto hoping to establish a Spanish colony and convert the indigenous tribes they met along the way. The Pardo exhibition was a disaster, all their forts and men were lost and it would be more than 10-years before the first English colony was established. It is believed that blacks were in the area from its earliest years but it is certain that slavery was mentioned in the Concessions and Agreements in 1665. In 1669 Article X of the Fundamental Constitutions legalized the institution. Twenty-nine years later the first proof of slaves physically being present in the region appears in an inventory.

Blacks began to be imported directly from Africa in the 1680s and their numbers began to increase substantially but just as blacks were present from the beginning of NC’s history there were always a number of free blacks. In 1705, a group of whites formally protested the fact that free blacks had been allowed to vote in a 1701 election. As the black population increased regulatory laws, Black Codes, were passed, one of which took away the right of free blacks to vote. Additions were made to the codes and in 1753 slave patrols were established. By the onset of the Civil War 33 percent of the population, 331,059 in NC were enslaved blacks and 14,107 were free.

Salem was founded in 1766, as a Moravian religious and trade center, followed 86-years later by the secular town of Winston. Winston was named in honor of Revolutionary War Colonel and State Senator Joseph Winston. Salem’s name is a derivation of “Shalom,” meaning “peace.” Winston was founded on 31-acres purchased from the Moravians to serve as the county seat of the newly established Forsythe County when Salem refused the offer. Almost immediately there was discussion of merging the two cities but a name was not agreed upon until 1913 when the hyphen was added between the two names and the consolidation was formalized.

The Moravian Church can be traced back to its roots in Bohemia and Moravia, the current Czech Republic. The area converted to Christianity in the 800s but by the 14th-century the people began to protest against some of the Catholic traditions. John Hus, a University of Prague professor, emerged as the most prominent of those calling for reform. As a result of his failure to obey demands that he stop preaching in December 4, 1616 the Pope convened a trio of bishops to investigate him. Hus was delivered to the Council of Constance and chained for 73-days. On June 5, 1415 he was tried in a Franciscan Monastery. He was condemned for heresy on July 6th, burned at the stake and his ashes were strewn in the Rhine River.

Hus’ followers did not abandon his cause and in 1457 they gathered in a small Bohemian village and organized the Unitas Fratrum, the Unity of Brethren, recognized as the Moravian Church. Unrelenting persecution and their missionary charge caused many Moravians to leave Europe and on October 18, 1735 26 Moravians accompanied Gen. Oglethorpe to Georgia aboard the Simmonds. They failed in their efforts to establish a colony in Savannah.

In 1741, they purchased 500 acres in Pennsylvania near the Lehigh River and founded the community of Bethlehem. Shortly thereafter, they established Nazareth on an additional 5,000-acres. Bethlehem was designated the Moravian religious and administrative center. It was named a National Historic Landmark District in 2012.

In the early 1750s, 100,000-acres were surveyed in North Carolina that came to be known as Wachovia and Moravian settlements were established, Bethabara (1755), Bethania (1759) and finally Salem in 1766. The two earliest settlements hired workers but by 1764 they discovered it was cheaper to lease slaves. Salem was founded explicitly to serve as a trade and mercantile center and laid out in a grid pattern. All three of the villages were theocracies, both the secular and spiritual life of the community was governed by the church and the church owned the enslaved. Initially the society was biracial, because all Moravians were considered spiritually equal, but as the settlement was influenced by the surrounding communities that changed. Individual slave ownership was not officially sanctioned until 1847 when all prohibitions against enslavement were eradicated.

Salem continued as a repository for Moravian history and culture well into the 20th-century and in 1947 the Citizens Committee for the Preservation of Historic Salem was formed to maintain and safeguard Old Salem. The following year the committee devised an action plan that designated Old Salem as a historic district. Their 1950 charter states their goal as the restoration, preservation and reconstruction of structures within Old Salem. Operating today as Old Salem Museums & Gardens the committee has preserved more than 70 structures and is an important and well-regarded living history site.

The Old Salem Visitor Center was constructed in 2003 and provides an outstanding orientation to Old Salem through an introductory video and themed exhibitions. Visitors can purchase tickets here for admission to sites. The complex includes a marketplace and souvenir shop ideal for purchasing Moravian crafts. Housed in the James Gray Auditorium is the 1800 David Tannenberg Organ. This pipe organ, made in Pennsylvania, has been fully restored.

The country’s largest collection of southern furniture and decorative arts is situated only steps away from the visitor center in the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA). African American crafts and craftsmen are prominently represented throughout. Three of the most renowned artists whose works are included are Joshua Johnson, David Drake the Potter and Thomas Day. In the late-1700s Johnson was the first African American portraitist in the country. Only one of his portraits was signed and Dave the potter was born in 1801 and was taught to read and write by his owner. He included original poems on some of his works and he signed some of his pieces, both daring moves in a society where it was not legal to read or write.

In his 30s he lost a leg and could no longer operate the treadle on the pottery wheel. The slaveowner paired him with another slave who had crippled hands but could work the treadle. Dave gained fame for his large pots and during the Civil War his owner had him make pots that could hide his fortune. He is believed to have died in the 1870s.

Slave woman display

Slave woman display

Thomas Day is probably still considered the most famous carpenter and furniture designer of African descent. Born free in 1801 he became the “go to” furniture craftsman, known for his ability to combine current styles with unique decorative touches. He was in such demand that he eventually owned the largest furniture shop in the state. He is believed to have died in the 1860s.

Stories of these craftsmen and others are related on the “The Hidden Legacy: The African American Influence in Southern Arts” tour. It can be arranged for groups but individuals should check with the museum for scheduled tours.

The Heritage Bridge visually and physically connects modern Salem with Old Salem. Fishcetti designed this 1999 replica of a 1800s frame bridge. As you walk the 120-ft. bridge you can almost feel the centuries slide away and then you step out into the Moravian world, as it existed between 1766 and 1840.

African Americans were always an integral part of Salem. They made the bricks and helped build the structures and were artisans, craftsmen, tradesmen and ordinary workers woven into the settlement’s fabric. The majority of the enslaved were bilingual, speaking both German and English, and were called upon to serve as translators. Four years after Salem was established records reveal that Africans and African Americans were approximately 20% of the population. At its height Salem had 10 free blacks, 418 enslaved blacks and 1,894 whites.

The first stop on the African American tour must be St. Philip’s Heritage Center, the focal point of a four  -site complex dedicated to the interpretation of Old Salem’s African American heritage. The center offers an orientation video, “Between Two Masters,” that relates the story through the eyes of historical figures including Peter Oliver, an enslaved potter who purchased his freedom.

Around the room, at ceiling level, muralist Warren Parker has creatively depicted the Moravian story. The right side of the room depicts the Moravian journey from its beginnings to American settlement. On the left Parker shows the African/African American story from the African slave trade to the time of Moravian and African American convergence.

Inside a series of small galleries throughout the center there are individual plaster cast figures of individuals who lived within the community. Each display contains an audio excerpt, in the first person, taken from their diaries and other documentation. The stories are poignant and paint a picture of their lives from their own perspective. Central to the display is a bronze sculpture of John Calvin Samuel, an infant who died at 3-months old. Other sites are accessible by guided tours only and leave from the heritage center on a regular schedule.

Attitudes towards the enslaved began to change and as early as the turn of the 19th-century when blacks were required to sit apart from white Moravians, either in the rear or in the balcony, and treated as lesser church members. In 1822 black members organized their own church funded by the white Female Missionary Society of the Moravian Church. The “Negro Church” was log and stood 32-ft. by 28’-ft. The Missionary Society established a school there in 1827 that operated until teaching African Americans to read became illegal. The congregation outgrew the church and in 1861 built a new one. The oak log church became a Freedman’s Hospital after the Civil War. The church was later reconstructed on its original site in 1999.

In 1861, the congregation constructed a Greek revival brick church. Tours of the church feature the architecture and original pews and a glass pane in the floor allows visitors to look at three stranger’s graves and read information panels. On the upper level there is a small museum that highlights the community, the architecture and displays a recreated Sunday school. Union Chaplain, Reverend Clark, read the Emancipation Proclamation from the pulpit on May 21, 1965. In 1914 the church was officially named St. Philip’s Moravian Church in reaction to its being known as the slave church. The congregation holds services every fifth Sunday of the month. It is the oldest black congregation in the state.

Moravians were originally buried together in God’s Acre (1766) by choir, or gender group and non-Moravians were buried in the Stranger’s Graveyard. The first black burial was Catarina (Sukey) in 1799 and the final one was Peter Bodney (1813). In 1816, it was determined that burials should be segregated and “Negro God’s Acre” was established at the opposite end of town. Later St.Philip’s would be erected adjacent to the burial ground and in 1890 they extended the church over some of the graves.

In the 1990s, efforts were made to locate and identify the gravesites. Excavations determined there are more than 100 graves. One elderly woman recalled hearing that there were gravestones beneath the church steps, Acting on this information they recovered 12 gravestones. One of the most poignant memorials I have ever seen is the 12-ft. long, red, granite slab attached to the church’s foundation upon which are carved the names of 131 people interred here. Every name is followed by a brief descriptive phrase found in documentation. My favorite is Rose Lucy Ann “Faithful.” She died in 1855.

Old Salem features the unique Homowo Harvest Collection, an African American heirloom seed collection that showcases seeds from plants native to Africa and associated with African Americans. Homowo is a Ghanaian word that means, “hooting at hunger” and the collection includes more than 45 vegetables, herbs and flowers that predate 1900. Seeds make great gifts and can be purchased at T. Bagge’s Merchant.

The Historic Brookstone Inn was a 2014 winner of Trip Advisor’s Certificate of Excellence and it is ideally situated between Winston and Salem. The building dates from 1837 and deftly blends the original architecture with the amenities and enhancements of a modern boutique hotel. Guests are treated to Euro Plush pillow top mattresses, luxury linens. Archive Essential bath products, nightly wine and cheese reception and bedtime cookies. Packages and specials are offered and it is one of the host properties for the National Black Theatre Festival.

Information and planning tools are available online. visit.winstonsalem

Order issued n Raleigh, NC  April 27, 1865

“To remove a doubt which seems to exist in the minds of some of the people of North Carolina, it is hereby declared that by virtue of the proclamation of the President of the United States, dated January 1, 1863, all persons in this State heretofore held as slaves are now free; and that it is the duty of the army to maintain the freedom of such persons……”

I wish you smooth travels!

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