We are thrilled to announce that another institution of higher learning has embarked on the process of confronting its own complicated past.
Salem Academy and College (also known as Salem College, Winston-Salem, North Carolina), founded in 1772, is the oldest educational institution for girls and women in the United States. Its traditions of rigorous education for women and responsibility to the community found their roots in the convictions of our eighteenth-century Moravian forebears, who believed that girls and women were entitled to the same education as boys and men. Responding to an invitation from the community leaders, sixteen women and girls traveled five hundred miles, mostly on foot, from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to what we now know as Winston-Salem in order to join the new village of Salem. Among those intrepid women was Sister Elisabeth Oesterlein, who was later appointed the school’s first teacher.
In its early years, the girls’ school at Salem was led by the unmarried women of the Moravian community, who were known as Single Sisters. The Single Sisters lived together and were economically self-sufficient, a rarity for women in the eighteenth century.
In the early history of Salem, students of diverse backgrounds were accepted as members of the school community. Moravian records show that at least two enslaved African-American students were accepted at the school in Salem in the 1780s and the 1790s. Hanna, an enslaved ten-year-old belonging to Adam Schumacher, received permission to attend the school in 1785. Anna Maria Samuel, who was an enslaved girl from Bethabara and had been baptized as a Moravian at her birth in 1781, took classes and lived in the Single Sisters’ House from 1793 until 1795.
In 1826, the school welcomed its first Native American student, Sally Ridge, who was the daughter of Cherokee leader Major Ridge. Jane Ross, the daughter of another Cherokee chief, was also a student at Salem, but she left the school to join her family on the Trail of Tears in 1838.Today, Salem College’s student body ranks among the most racially and ethnically diverse in the state.
In spring 2017, Salem College President D.E. Lorraine Sterritt convened the Committee on the History of Salem Academy and College in order to examine the school’s involvement with the institution of slavery since the school’s founding in 1772. The Co-Chairs of that sixteen person committee are Michelle Hopkins Lawrence (History Teacher, Salem Academy) and Katherine Knapp Watts (Vice President for Enrollment, Financial Aid, and Communications). They are charged with revising the new student orientation tradition so it highlights a broader narrative about Salem’s history and also to update museum interpretive presentations at the schools museum.
Salem College represents the thirty-fifth school to join Universities Studying Slavery. Please welcome them to the movement.