African American History

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Enslaved, and some free, African Americans lived in Salem from the early years of its founding in 1766.  Eventually, there were brick makers, potters, blacksmiths, coopers, carpenters, road builders, domestic workers, teamsters, and farmers, both Africans and African Americans, living and working in and around the church town.

Several African Americans converted to Christianity and were baptized into the Moravian Church.  As congregation members, they were treated with considerably more respect, though their condition of bonded servitude was not altered.  Like whites, they were addressed as “Brother” or “Sister.”  Slave marriages were not legally recognized in the South, but they gained a certain sanction in Moravian communities.  To the Moravians, the marriage of enslaved African Americans helped create stable families and played a role in social control, since marriage tended to root bondsmen to their homes and thereby help prevent their running away.

Most enslaved residents spoke German as well as English, and some gained literacy in one or both languages.  Some African American children attended Moravian schools with European American children.  Enslaved Moravians were hardly full equals in church, but there they could find protection denied most other enslaved African Americans.

Salem’s biracial community gradually collapsed in the early 19th century as white Moravians began to absorb the segregationist sentiment spreading across the new republic.  In 1816 the decision was made to no longer bury Black Moravians alongside their White Brethren in God’s Acre.  In 1822 Black and White Moravians no longer worship together and a church was built in 1823 for African Moravians at the south end of town. The African and African American Moravian congregation, organized in Salem in 1822 among a mostly enslaved population, is one of the oldest Black congregations in the United States.  It is the only historic African American Moravian congregation in the country.

African Americans in Salem Brochure

African American Programs & Events

For more information on African American programs, please call or email Chery Harry, Director of African American Programs (336-721-7399 or cdharry@oldsalem.org)

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