Enslaved people helped build Old Salem. For years, their stories went untold.
Like thousands of North Carolinians, anti-racism educator Lucretia Berry took a field trip to Old Salem Museums & Gardens as a child.
She learned about the Moravians, about how they were staunch pacifists and valued peace. But it wasn’t until well into her 30s that she learned that slavery was even a part of Old Salem’s story.
“I think it still didn't hit me that — wait a minute, the Moravians are celebrated. But they weren't supposed to enslave people," said Berry. "Like, that was a part of who they were.”
Her shock turned into amazement when she then learned that she was descended from enslaved people who lived and worked in Salem.
“I think it still didn't hit me that — wait a minute, the Moravians are celebrated. But they weren't supposed to enslave people. Like, that was a part of who they were.”Lucretia Berry, anti-racism educator
“You know, the next time I visited Old Salem I started touching the buildings in a different way," said Berry. "It gives me chills just to tell you the story.”
She says that experience of connecting with ancestral history is one that many Black children miss out on.
“Many Americans whose ancestors were enslaved don't have a connection to their history, or to their family. And so to then have such a concrete, documented, tangible connection still feels overwhelming.
It’s one reason Old Salem has moved in recent years to incorporate the stories of enslaved people into every part of the museum.
For example, when visitors enter the pottery studio — one of many living history exhibits at the museum— an interpreter explains they’re making clay pipes in homage to Peter Oliver, an enslaved person who worked in the shop.
Jacob Chilton is an Old Salem interpreter.
“Peter Oliver stands out among a lot of the enslaved individuals who are living here in Salem," says Chilton. "In part because his is a story where he's able to purchase this freedom within his lifetime, in part through selling pipe stems.”
Peter’s story is one element of the Hidden Town Project, the museum’s effort to showcase the contributions of enslaved people and freedmen.
Frank Vagnone, CEO of Old Salem, says the goal is to make sure visitors leave knowing a truth that had been overlooked for years:
“Moravians could not have done what they did without enslaved labor.”
He says for decades that aspect of the town’s history was either siloed or entirely absent. When the museum first opened in the early 1950s, the focus was on the white male Moravians who worked as tradesmen. Gradually, stories about white women were incorporated. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that the museum publicly turned its attention to the enslaved people and freedmen that lived and worked in the town.
That began with the restoration of St. Philips Moravian Church, a brick building built in 1861 that served people of African descent. The museum focused on using that space, and a replica of the original log church to tell the stories of enslaved people in Salem.
“But if you didn't go up Church Street, to the fringe of the district, you really didn't get that narrative," said Vagnone. "Because the story of the enslaved was placed in this church, which is on the fringe, it remained on the fringe.”
Vagnone says the first step in changing that was digging into new research. Eventually, archeologists and archivists discovered records confirming 35 separate dwelling places for enslaved people once existed in Salem, a kind of "hidden town" — hence the name.
Some of what they found countered a prevailing narrative that had been circulating — that the Moravians had been benevolent enslavers.
“We have writings of the Moravians that state, for instance, where a Moravian beat a runaway slave so badly that the Moravian had to go home and take a nap," said Vagnone. "I'm not making that up. It's in there.”
A centerpiece of the project was the text panels placed in each Old Salem building that explain how people of African descent were connected to it. Then, staff had to be trained to incorporate the new research into their historical interpretations for the public.
But not everyone was on board.
“There were people who didn't want to fully embed these narratives, because they felt uncomfortable talking about it, or considered it difficult history," said Vagnone. "And of course the responses, well, it's difficult for you, you know, but the Black population that's coming to visit us, they want to hear these stories.”
We have writings of the Moravians that state, for instance, where a Moravian beat a runaway slave so badly that the Moravian had to go home and take a nap.Frank Vagnone, CEO of Old Salem
For Lucretia Berry, the long-standing omission of those stories has been frustrating. She says shortly after she learned about her connection to Old Salem, she came across an old PBS documentary about the town and started watching.
“And I kept waiting for them to talk about the free labor that they had," said Berry. "And they didn't, and I burst out crying. That was painful.”
She says the Hidden Town Project is one step in the right direction.
“I hate to say going above and beyond, because the standard is pretty low. So I will say, you know, setting a precedent, being a model, kind of leading the way for restoring stories, value, and dignity."
COVID-19 has stalled her plans to view the Hidden Town exhibitions in person; the museum closed for months and is now operating fewer buildings with a fraction of its staff.
But Berry says soon it will be her daughter’s turn to take a field trip to Old Salem, and she’s looking forward to being a chaperone.