Salem Academy and College began as a school for young girls in 1772 in the Moravian town of Salem, North Carolina which had been established just six years earlier by Moravian missionaries. It is the oldest educational institution for both girls and women in the United States. Although no longer a part of the Moravian Church, the history of the school has been an integral part of the town of Salem. Remarkably, the school has always remained in operation even during wars and pandemics.
Today, the Academy and College share a 47-acre campus at its original location in the heart of Old Salem, part of the city of Winston-Salem. During its long history, the institution has developed into Salem Academy, a college preparatory school for girls in grades 9 through 12, Salem College, a liberal arts school for women, and The Fleer Center for adult education, as well as a graduate program, open to men and women.
The school catalogs of the 19th century clearly demonstrate common elements of the school’s philosophy that have remained consistent throughout its history from its earliest days. Early administrators outlined the intention of the faculty to develop girls and young women according to their individual needs. This included an emphasis on physical wellness and exercise, the promotion of high standards for its students and faculty, and attention to the whole student for the development of her character as well as her mind. The school placed its chief emphasis upon the individual pupil. These were the concerns of the early Moravian teachers of the school in the 18th century, and they continue to be the focus of the institution in the 21st century.
From the beginning, the school has been dedicated to female education. At a time when public education did not exist in most areas of the country or the world even for boys, the Moravians of Salem believed in the importance of educating all members of the church community. As the Moravian Bishop John Amos Commenius declared in the 17th century:
No reason can be shown why the female sex … should be kept from a knowledge of languages and wisdom. For they are also human beings, an image of God, as we are … in their minds they are equally gifted to acquire wisdom … Why then should we merely dismiss them with the ABC and drive them away from books: Are we afraid of their meddling? The more we introduce them to mental occupations, the less time they will find for meddling, which comes from emptiness of mind.
Commenius’s words were revolutionary in the 17th century as were the attitudes toward women’s education and work among the Moravians of North America in the 18th century. The Moravians of Europe ordained women preachers and accepted enslaved Africans and free people of African descent as full members of the church in its American and European communities. Rebecca Protten, a Black Moravian preached in Germany and founded a Moravian school in West Africa. In the 18th century, the Salem town council, in keeping with Moravian beliefs of spiritual equality, allowed enslaved students to attend the school. Unfortunately, later generations of Moravians in North Carolina did not remain true to the church’s earlier beliefs.
As Moravians in the communities of Wachovia adopted the views of their North Carolinian neighbors about slavery and racial inequality, they stopped treating their Moravian Black brothers and sisters as spiritual equals. As the towns grew, Church leaders also allowed more exceptions to the restrictions on the use of enslaved labor. These restrictions had existed in the early period of Wachovia as protection for the towns’ economic interests, not as a moral objection to slavery.
By the early 1800s, the town of Salem had segregated its church, its graveyard, and its schools. Salem Female Academy rented enslaved laborers from its neighbors and eventually owned people outright. As of the fall of 2020, 17 enslaved people have been identified as working at the school. In the period before the Civil War, Salem Female Academy educated 12 Moravian Cherokee students who came to board at the school. This practice ended, however, after the passage of the Indian Removal Act by Congress. For the next century, Salem was a segregated institution.
Part of the work of The Anna Maria Samuel Project is to shed light on the lives of those people who were owned by the school and to uncover the legacy of racism and segregation at Salem Academy and College. This period of segregation did not end until the 1960s when the school embarked upon a program of integration. Today, Salem Academy and College is one of the most diverse educational institutions in the country, and students, faculty, and staff continue the work of exploring the institution’s history and understanding how its past shapes its present.