History

Salem Academy and College 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. The school was founded in 1772—four years before the Declaration of Independence was signed. Responding to an invitation from the community leaders, sixteen women and girls traveled 500 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 Salem'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 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, Salem 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.

During the 1860s, college-level courses were added to the curriculum. Reflecting changes in its character and mission, the institution's name was officially changed in 1907 to Salem Academy and College. Less than thirty years later, a new and wholly separate set of facilities for the Academy was built on the eastern perimeter of the campus, and the existing buildings on Salem Square became the College. 

The inspiring mission of the Single Sisters has continued for nearly 250 years and is evident in the dedication of our faculty, the enthusiasm and commitment of our students, and the academic and professional success of our alumnae. Across America and around the world, Salem’s more than 15,000 alumnae are serving as teachers, physicians, researchers, artists, musicians, inventors, community volunteers, and business executives.

At Salem Academy and at Salem College, we are educating the next generation of leaders in all of these fields. And the extraordinary education that Salem provides continues to be grounded in the Moravian tradition of love and respect for all.