Old Salem Announces New Initiative: The Hidden Town Project

To Research and Reveal History of Enslaved and Free Africans and African Americans in Salem

News media contact
Scott Carpenter
336.722.9660 or scott@capturevalue.com

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (August 17, 2017) — Old Salem Museums & Gardens has begun a groundbreaking initiative called the Hidden Town Project to research and reveal the history of a community of enslaved and free Africans and African Americans who once lived in Salem, North Carolina.

These histories involve the complicated use of slavery and enslaved people to build the town and their contribution to the mercantile prosperity of Salem. The Hidden Town Project will track the effects and legacy of enslaved people from the inception of Salem itself in 1766 through the Jim Crow Era and into the 21st Century.

Since December 2016, a diverse, cross-functional committee of Old Salem staff and external scholars has been gathering regularly to research, discuss, and formulate a larger strategy to bring to the public this lesser-known aspect of the Moravian town of Salem. Once more data is compiled, this committee will expand to include descendants of the enslaved as well as residents of early Salem. The Hidden Town committee is chaired by Franklin Vagnone, Cheryl Harry, and Martha Hartley of Old Salem Museums & Gardens.

“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.

The goals for the Hidden Town are to:

  • locate the sites of dwelling places of enslaved people throughout Salem’s historic district
  • fully integrate this narrative into the everyday interpreted visitor experience: where they lived and worked, and who they were as human beings
  • connect with descendants of the enslaved
  • archaeologically investigate designated sites
  • interpret the heritage of enslaved people in Salem and their descendants through contemporary art forms, salon discussions, and public gatherings.

It is known that “Sam” was the first enslaved individual purchased by the Wachovia Administration on August 9, 1769. The enslaved population in Salem grew over time from a few individuals in the 18th century to a height of approximately 160 enslaved men, women, and children in the town of Salem by 1860. Some lived in their owners’ homes while others lived in slave dwellings in town (approximately 40 slave houses existed by 1860).

Using the vast resources found within Old Salem Museums & Gardens including its Collections, the MESDA Research Center, and the Anne P. and Thomas A. Gray Library, as well as the Moravian Archives and Wachovia Historical Society, the initial stages of this research have already produced extensive and compelling data:

  • Approximately, 5,200 photos have been reviewed in the Old Salem Photograph Collection finding evidence of enslaved and freedmen dwellings, as well as images of individuals.
  • Extensive Records of the Moravians in North Carolina, 1753 through 1876.  Comprised of 13 volumes containing many of the official records of the Moravian Church in Wachovia, much of which was translated from the original German and includes information on enslaved individuals who lived in Wachovia.
  • The MESDA Craftsman Database: Information gathered from Southern primary documents on craftsmen who worked in the South, including more than 4,000 African American artisans (online).
  • More than 16,000 collection objects, many of which have a relationship to the Hidden Town Project research.
  • The Moravian Archives in Winston-Salem houses more than one million pages of original documentation about the Moravians in North Carolina, beginning in 1753, and is a significant source of information about the people who lived in Salem and Wachovia. This primary documentation includes papers relating to the purchase of enslaved individuals, as well as correspondence, diaries, memoirs, maps, prints, and photographs.

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.

Already receiving national attention for this new project, members of the Hidden Town Committee have met with the Chipstone Foundation of New York City and Milwaukee (www.chipstone.org), to plan a series of think-tanks and innovative curatorial initiatives to discuss the research and future implications of Old Salem’s interpretation. Additionally, Hidden Town will be presented at The International Conference of National Trusts in Bali, Indonesia September 12, The International Conference of Museums London England October 12, and the Slave Dwelling Project Conference at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville October 18-21.

The Hidden Town project is in the early stages of impacting interpretation and programming but several examples include

  • Noted scholar, genealogist, and educator Elon Cook led interpretive and front line staff through a training session on August 14, 2017 entitled: Principles of Interpreting Slavery.
  • A previously non-interpreted room in the historic Salem Tavern Museum has been stabilized and is now open as a room of meditation and reflection on the enslaved at Salem, North Carolina. The room, which sits above the Tavern kitchen, is believed to have housed, among others, the enslaved family of Peter and Louisa and their three children.
  • The interpreted Trades of pottery and joinery have been moved to new locations within the historic district and the Hidden Town Project and narrative will begin to be presented alongside other stories of Salem.
  • In Spring 2018, Old Salem will host, among others, students from Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools’ Walkertown High School and nationally recognized public historian, Joe McGill, of the Slave Dwelling Project, to a weekend-long community happening, which will involve overnight stays in various spots within the historic district where the enslaved may have lived.

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.

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.