The history of African-Americans in Winston-Salem is deeply rooted in the philosophy that hard work and determination can bring forth transformation and innovation. Since the days of our early Moravian settlers of Salem, the works of African-Americans can be seen in historic structures, schools, banks and in transportation, among many other areas.
Innovation from the Early 19th Century to Now: Take a Look
When the Moravians first settled Salem in 1766, there were both freed and enslaved African-Americans living among them. Because of a strong belief in “equality through religion,” Moravians felt the African-Americans should always be able to worship alongside them. With the new republic’s idea of segregation settling into the town of Salem, the Moravians were faced with a tough decision. Battling with the morality of accepting slavery and granting spiritual welfare, the Moravians allowed both freed and enslaved blacks to worship together in exchange for their obedience in their own separate church. The “Log Church” was built solely for the African-Americans in 1823. Almost 40 years later, there was a need for a larger space so St. Philips African Moravian Church was built in 1861. St. Philips became the safe haven for these men and women to commune with one another and to eventually practice literacy until the state law banning it. Today it is North Carolina's oldest standing African-American church. A reconstruction of the Log Church,located beside St. Philips, serves as a mixed media orientation point for the St. Philips Heritage Center in Old Salem Museums & Gardens. St. Philips is also the site where a Union Calvary Chaplain announced freedom of slaves in 1865, thus opening the doors for African-American achievement in and around the town of Salem.
Also found in Old Salem is the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA). Here you will find not only a well-preserved collection of Moravian textiles and art but also that of many other Southern colonies from the early 18th century. Among these are the works of Thomas Day, an African-American furniture maker. The story of Thomas Day is especially inspiring because even during the height of racially segregated times, Day was a free black whose statement furniture pieces were in high-demand among wealthy White Americans.
Just up the road from Salem was a more secular industrial city; Winston. Winston native and African-American, Simon Green Atkins, was fundamental to the educational advancement of African-Americans in Winston. Atkins recognized the shortage in fair education for African-American students and impressed upon the emerging Black community its responsibility to "add to the moral and intellectual power of a race." The Depot Street School was the first black school in Winston, opening in 1887. During his tenure as principal there, Atkins encouraged the black community to take full advantage of gaining an education. He took this philosophy and founded several institutions for higher education; including Slater Industrial Academy, today known as Winston-Salem State University (WSSU). Atkins High School, Winston-Salem's first black high school was named after him in 1931.
This attractive historically black university neighbors the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and Old Salem Museums & Gardens. Take time to check out their championship football team or strong women’s basketball team for a heart-pumping Saturday afternoon. Intriguing to both students and visitors, WSSU also offers a number of institutes and galleries to discover.
Diggs Gallery has been identified as one of the top 10 African-American galleries in the nation – offering one of the largest exhibition spaces dedicated to the arts of Africa and the African Diaspora in North Carolina. Magnificent components to Diggs Gallery include the sculpture garden found around the campus and the Biggers Murals located inside the library.
Only a five minute drive from WSSU’s campus is another compelling arts gallery, Delta Fine Arts Center. W-S Delta Fine Arts, Inc. was established in 1972 as project of the Winston-Salem Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. with a strong focus on engaging the community in cultural, educational and public service programs. The center features rotating exhibitions in a number of different mediums, ranging from beautiful tapestries to vivid oil paintings.
Art was not the only method African-Americans used to bring influence in the community. While segregation was still very prevalent, many Blacks were settled into the east side of Winston-Salem. Mrs. Jessie Hayes brought the first “Blacks Only” bus to Winston-Salem in the early 1920’s, providing safe travel for domestic women. It didn’t take long for the idea to catch on and only a few short years later, Safe Bus Company was incorporated and had routes all over East Winston-Salem. By 1968, Safe Bus Company had several hundred employees and proudly claimed the title as “the largest black-owned transportation concern in the world.”
Biennial National Black Theatre Festival / North Carolina Black Repertory Company
When reflecting on the many impacts of African-Americans on the city, the legacy of Larry Leon Hamlin is not to be overlooked. The founder of the North Carolina Black Repertory Company (NCBRC), the state’s first black professional theatre company, Hamlin was largely responsible for exposing Winston-Salem audiences to Black theatre. Founded in 1979, the organization puts on an average of four highly-anticipated productions a year including Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity each December. Ten years after starting NCBRC, Hamlin also founded the biennial National Black Theatre Festival (NBTF), which is held every odd year in the late summer months in Winston-Salem. The NBTF brings together theatre goers and theatre professionals from across the globe. With over 100 performances in a number of venues, Winston-Salem transforms into a mega-performing arts centre that includes plays, film, workshops, seminars, celebrity receptions, and poetry slams suitable for all ages.
Opportunities such as these are what inspired another form of black art in our community, culinary. The restaurant scene in Winston-Salem is said to be a rather prestigious one. This is in large part due to the work and innovation of black culinary experts who call Winston-Salem home. Downtown restaurants such as Sweet Potatoes and Meta’s serve up Southern food that sits heavy on the soul leaving diners with brighter spirits and fuller bellies. Local favorite, though also nationally recognized, Hill’s Lexington Barbecue is well-known for smoking and chopping up some of the best Carolina barbecue. The African-American community has made great strides in Winston-Salem and their roots in this city are incredibly deep and impactful. Because of that, that history lives on today in many different areas of Winston-Salem through museums, galleries and educational institutions. There is much to do and discover in Winston-Salem.
To schedule a group tour to discover more about Winston-Salem’s African-American heritage please visit our group tour page here.