Hidden Town Project

Hidden Town Project
To Research and Reveal the History of Enslaved and Free People of African Descent in Salem

To help as a research volunteer fill out an application! If you have any information, or you are a descendant of an enslaved individual, please email us at [email protected] .

Virtual Workshop — “Migration Patterns: Alternatives for Locating African American Origins” presented by Lamar E. DeLoatch, President of the Piedmont-Triad Chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society (AAHGS), on Feb. 12, 2022. Mr. DeLoatch states, “If you want to know where you came from, this will be a great workshop for you to attend.” For more information about AAHGS, please visit ncaahgs.org.

Find the Hidden Town Research Lot File Summary here.

The Initiative 

Old Salem Museums & Gardens leads a groundbreaking initiative called the Hidden Town Project to research and reveal the history of a community of enslaved and free people of African descent who once lived in Salem, North CarolinaAn early step for the museum was the transformation of space above the Tavern kitchen into the “Room of Meditation & Reflection on the Enslaved in the Town of Salem, NC.”

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 tracks the effects and legacy of enslaved people from the founding of Salem in 1766 through the Jim Crow Era and into the 21st Century.

Although restricted by church rules in early Salem, the practice of slavery slowly increased, even against the town’s regulations. At its height, there were approximately 135 enslaved men, women, and children in Salem. Some lived in their enslaver’s homes while others lived in about 35 slave dwellings in town. Following the Civil War, Freedmen established the first school for African American children in the county and established a neighborhood across Salem Creek, called “Happy Hill.”

The project is also focused on ways that Old Salem can better tell stories of people of African descent in the town of Salem. The information on this page reflects up-to-date research which informs the museum interpretation. Please visit the St. Philips African American Heritage Center or any other interpreted site within the district to learn more about this history and the Hidden Town Project. If you would like to get involved in the Hidden Town Project, please contact us at [email protected]

Research Update from Martha Hartley, Director of Moravian Research

September 1, 2021

The Hidden Town Project was initiated in December 2016 with a mission: To Research and Reveal the History of People of African descent in Salem.

Project goals are to: 

  • locate sites of dwelling places of enslaved people throughout Salem
  • fully integrate the narrative into the museum’s interpreted visitor experience
  • connect with descendants 
  • archaeologically investigate designated sites 
  • interpret the heritage of people of African descent in Salem and their descendants through contemporary art forms, salon discussions, and public gatherings.

The Hidden Town initiative builds on decades of previous work at Old Salem, especially the restoration of St. Philips Moravian Church (from 1989) and the accompanying discovery process through scholarship in the Moravian Archives and through archaeology. Two publications from that earlier work are available: Jon F. Sensbach, A Separate Canaan: The Making of an Afro-Moravian World in North Carolina, 1763-1840 (1998), and Leland Ferguson, God’s Fields: Landscape, Religion, and Race in Moravian Wachovia (2011).

African born and derived people are among the founders and builders of Salem, and thus the city of Winston-Salem. Through continued research, Old Salem is working to understand the history of all people who lived and worked in the town — enslaved and free people of African descent who participated in building the town, worked in the shops, industries, and homes of its white residents, and contributed to the general prosperity. Their descendants and the post-Emancipation African American population to the present-day are part of the story as well. The history is complicated, and the research-based project is focused on identifying people and building their biographies, as well as understanding their lives within the white Moravian world.

In addition to research, community engagement remains a critical component of the Hidden Town Project through collaboration, education, and public awareness. Understanding truth in history is basic to the conversation, as many people remain unaware of the history and the direct relationship to slavery, its enduring legacy, and the profound inequities in our own time. 

Landscape of Slavery

Hidden Town Project research is focused on understanding the landscape of slavery in Salem, broader Wachovia, and the individuals who were enslaved there. The detailed Moravian records provide insight and information about the people and the changing nature of slavery in the town of Salem. The town’s theocratic leadership continually struggled to keep the number of enslaved people low through rules established which prohibited residents from owning enslaved people in town; however, exceptions were made, and the renting of enslaved people was regularly approved. 

A small number of enslaved people chose conversion and became Moravians. Afro-Moravian Peter Oliver (1766-1810) was the only known Black householder in Salem. A communicant Moravian who was free in 1800, he married the free Christina Bass and leased a four-acre farm a few blocks north of Salem Square. Invisible under 200 years development, the site is in design by the important landscape architect Walter Hood, and history is playing a prominent role in his design. This Creative Corridors Coalition project is developing the space in honor of Peter Oliver, which is also the new location for MUSE

During Peter Oliver’s life, the “integrated fellowship” between white and Black Moravians degraded, and he was one of the last persons of African descent buried in Salem’s God’s Acre. By 1816 the segregated Negro God’s Acre was established and in 1822, a Negro Congregation was created (the origin of St. Philips Moravian Church). Acculturation and a changing economy toward industrialization challenged the slave regulations. In 1847 the slave rules were discarded as unenforceable, and the number of enslaved people owned by Salem residents increased until Emancipation in 1865. Not all Moravians were enslavers, but by 1860, the Federal Census recorded approximately 135 enslaved people in the town. Slavery in Salem was urban slavery, not plantation slavery, and especially after 1847, enslaved people stayed on their enslaver’s residential lot, either in the enslaver’s house or in an outbuilding. 

Freedom was announced in the African Church in Salem (St. Philips) on May 21, 1865, with the reading of “General Orders 32” by a Union Army chaplain. Pencil by Leo Rucker, 2012. 

Following Emancipation, announced on May 21, 1865, in the African Church in Salem (St. Philips Moravian Church), the segregated Freedmen’s neighborhood of “Happy Hill” was established and many formerly enslaved people in Salem became property owners there. African Americans also lived in the town of Salem. Although Black people had lived in Salem since the colonial period, by the 1930s, Jim Crow laws and redlining had changed all that. The area we know as Old Salem became a segregated white neighborhood, and the Black presence became a “Hidden Town.”


Where did enslaved people live in Salem?

There are no extant “slave houses” in Old Salem and locating the sites of dwelling places of enslaved people and investigating them archaeologically are research goals. Research Lot Files are being created to address this question, with interns and volunteers invaluable to the process. A set of primary and secondary sources are reviewed and gleaned for information about select Salem lots. An analysis is then made to describe the probable location of the “slave house.” To date, over twenty-five Salem lots have been researched with several currently in progress. For more information, see our Hidden Town Research Lot File Summary.

The basis for locating “slave houses” is the “Slave Schedule” in the 1860 Federal Census for Forsyth County for the Salem District which included the enumeration of “slaves” and “slave houses” by enslaver. Indications are that what was counted as a “slave house” by the census taker in 1860 was in most cases a building with another primary use (wash house, kitchen, workshop, etc.). A notable exception was Christian David’s house, which was built as his dwelling on Lot 7 in 1835 by the Church, and there may be other such examples.  

Also of consideration is that some Salem residents who were enslavers and recorded with a “slave house” were farming, as indicated in the 1860 Federal Census for Forsyth County “Products of Agriculture” for the Salem District. That brings the possibility of the “slave house” being located on the farm acreage and not on the residential town lot. Further research is necessary. 

In addition, some enslaved people lived within the enslaver’s home in Salem and research seeks to determine where in the house the enslaved people may have stayed. 

Rooftop view of across the south end of Salem, ca. 1865. The one-story frame building with end chimney in the immediate foreground is a laundry which research indicates may have been used as a “slave house.” Beyond, the African Church is prominent in the center rear and the background landscape is the farm which became Liberia (or Happy Hill) in 1872. Henry Lineback, photographer. Wachovia Historical Society Collection.

Who were the Africans and people of African descent in Salem?

As the Research Lot Files are developed and enslaved people are encountered in the lot research, Biography Files are created, and much effort is made to identify people and make family connections. Research extends into genealogical information developed ca. 2000 by Mel White, Old Salem’s first Director of African American Programming. Documentation held by the Moravian Archives, including the “Diary of the Small Negro Congregation,” is also revealing. 

As slavery in Salem evolved, it became generational slavery with enslaved family members scattered throughout the town and to other places in Wachovia. With complex dynamics, there is much yet to learn about relationships, but a start is made with over 100 identified people of African descent associated with slavery in Salem. 

Connections to descendant populations are a significant project goal as well. Timothy and Fanny were born in Africa in the early 1700s and by the late 1700s, they were enslaved in Wachovia. Timothy was over 100 years at death and Fanny was over 90. They were buried in the Negro God’s Acre and their stories are told in the museum’s Log Church exhibit. Timothy and Fanny are ancestors to many descendants today, including historian Spencer McCall who is working on a book about the family. His cousin, Lucretia Carter Berry, PhD, is a racism awareness educator, author, and speaker who is co-founder of Brownicity: Many Hues, ONE Humanity.

The gravestones of Timothy and Fanny were among 31 gravestones discovered beneath the floor and behind the steps of St. Philips Moravian Church during early restoration work in the 1990s. 


Collaboration with North Carolina State University’s Department of Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences during Fall Semester 2018 included three full days of Archaeological Geophysics (Ground Penetrating Radar and Electromagnetic Induction). Two lots were examined, including Lot 67 (Blum) where a detached kitchen (no longer standing) may have been used as a “slave house.” That location, as well as much of the lot, was investigated. The geophysical examination is a preliminary step to archaeological exploration.

Virtual interpretation is a potential means of conveying invisible information at Old Salem (lost buildings and landscape). Collaboration with Middle Tennessee State University in 2021 (and 2018) considered the Christian David house, interior/exterior details, and his belongings through Hidden Town in 3D

In spring semester 2019, a master’s thesis by Dana Johnson, Savannah School of Art and Design, created a virtual interior of a wash house or laundry that once stood on Lot 22 and is thought to have been housing for an enslaved person enumerated in the 1860 “Slave Schedule.” The laundry building is shown in the foreground of the ca. 1865 photograph of Salem above.

 Examples of a virtual reality experience for the laundry interior, including photogrammetry of Old Salem artifacts, created by Dana Johnson, 2019.

Since 2018, the Hidden Town Project has benefitted from the research support of volunteers and interns. In addition, Jonathan Serrano, who began as a volunteer, became the inaugural Hidden Town Research Fellow (Aug. 2020-Feb. 2021). Long time Research volunteers are Moye Lowe and Kelly Dixon. Volunteer CJ Idol also contributed to lot and biography research. Local college and university students have contributed much through semester internships as they learn through using primary source documentation to build research files. Students have included: Wake Forest University undergraduates – Andie Coffey, Emily Dau, Bobby Farnham, Maddy Wagner, Leah Zuberer, Ella Bishop, Alyssa Walton, Gretchen Boyles, Matthew Capps, Meredith Groce, Kendall John, Robby Outland, Emma Grace Sprinkle, Garrett Toombs, Emily Wilmink, Madison Zehmer; Salem College undergraduates – Molly Sutphin, Jordan Wallen, Jessi Bowman, Kelly Dixon, and Salem Academy student Michaela Michael; UNCG graduate students Jessi Bowman, Katie Lowe, Sarah Grahl; and Savannah College of Art and Design graduate student Dana Johnson. 

Hidden Town Project research is based out of Old Salem Research and Archaeology in the Wachovia Room of the Old Salem Visitor Center.

Old Salem’s Hidden Town Project is a member of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society (AAHGS), NC Piedmont-Triad Chapter, and supports genealogical study to broaden understanding of history and human relationships. Hidden Town Project Fellow Jonathan Serrano co-presented with Martha Hartley at the 2021 Black History Month Genealogy Regional Conference with “Genealogy Reveals Meaning for a Museum and for a Community.”

Community Engagement 

The post-Emancipation landscape of freedom included the first African American neighborhood in Winston-Salem: Happy Hill, and the Hidden Town Project supports efforts to revitalize this historic neighborhood. In 1872 on the former Schumann farm across Salem Creek from the town, the Moravian Church created a segregated neighborhood for Freedmen with lots available for $10 each. Named “Liberia,” it was soon known as Happy Hill, and by the 1920s about 130 families lived on the beautiful rolling landscape there. 

This detail of the “Bird’s Eye View of Winston and Salem” shows the Landscape of Freedom in 1891. Ruger & Stoner, Wachovia Historical Society Collection.

Neighborhood stability was upended by public policy decisions, especially in the mid-to-late-twentieth century, which traumatized Happy Hill through highway development and urban renewal (for more information, see Hidden Town Project Update). The Hidden Town Project supports the Happy Hill Neighborhood Association and their focus on collaborative energy to foster renewal through recognition of history as well as arts programming and community gardening. Significant efforts led by Triad Cultural Arts seek to preserve culture and architecture through the Shotgun House Project

Public awareness and education of local history are key elements of outreach by the Hidden Town Project. Lectures are presented in public forums and to community groups, businesses, and students. The project is participating in preparations for the Wake Forest University/Guilford College spring 2022 Universities Studying Slavery Symposium. Hidden Town is also a member of the Truth, Re/Conciliation, Reparations of Forsyth County, working to build an understanding of history, its impacts, and the way forward.

Recognizing that we live our history, we cannot limit ourselves to the historical record but use its insights to repair past wrongs and to move forward in human relationship.