Commissioners Fund, But Critique Old Salem’s Hidden Town

“I do have a few points, Chair Martin. First, I just want to definitely thank the folk from over at Old Salem and Cheryl Harry for meeting to talk about the questions that I raised around the Hidden Town Project and its connection with the Shotgun House project. And I think because the questions were raised, we were able to figure out where the miscommunications were and also where we could absolutely grow cooperatively in order to make Hidden Town a strong product for the citizens of Forsyth County. But I do want to just lastly say these few things. I think Hidden Town project is about the appropriation of culture and identity. And the best practices nationally is around making sure those whom it directly connects to have a strong voice and leadership in that process…”

Commissioner Malishai “Shai” Woodbury, March 2023 


I appreciate Commissioner Woodbury’s perspective on Old Salem’s Hidden Town project, particularly her efforts to ensure Old Salem’s Hidden Town supports the work being done in historic Happy Hill. But describing Old Salem’s intentional effort to uncover Salem’s African American history as cultural appropriation is a stretch.

The Hidden Town Project was started over five years ago by former Old Salem Inc. President Franklin Vagnone and his team. The Hidden Town Project has done a fantastic job reexamining Old Salem. Everyone knows that George Washington visited the Town of Salem. But Hidden Town widened the conversation; it asked about the enslaved African Americans that accompanied Washington.

Further incorporating the Hidden Town project into all of Old Salem is an ambitious goal. The Forsyth County Commissioners recently approved $391,875 for restoration and improvements to buildings related to Old Salem’s Hidden Town Project. It was at that early March 2023 meeting that Commissioner Woodbury commented on Old Salem’s Hidden Town Project.

It’s important to recognize how far Old Salem has come. When Old Salem was incorporated decades ago, arguably, the only culture it appropriated was Colonial Williamsburg’s culture. Old Salem’s initial emphasis was on its Moravian faith. Culturally, its historical narrative was very, very white. It whitewashed Salem’s past and ignored the African American presence in Salem.

Dec 1970 Article on Old Salem

It wasn’t until many decades later that St Philips African Moravian Church was restored and included in Old Salem’s tours. St. Phillips African Moravian was Old Salem’s unique reclamation project. Hidden Town goes a step further; it brings Salem’s African American history to Main Street. Promoting continuity between Old Salem, Inc and historic Happy Hill is a goal that has not been fully realized. But Old Salem has made good-faith efforts to include Happy Hill in the narrative.

Today, Old Salem is a historic gem that can be enjoyed on many levels. Visitors can learn about pre-industrial methods of production. They can focus on bread, metal, and guns in addition to Colonial and African American History. Hidden Town allows visitors to learn about the shadow that slavery cast over Salem and how it ultimately undermined Moravian brotherhood and doomed a theocratic experiment to failure.

Old Salem’s guided tours, as well as the Salem landscape, have much to teach us. From school children to the oldest amongst us. From Happy Hill to St Philips African Moravian Church to Main Street, Old Salem to God’s Acre, Salem Cemetary (segregated), all the way to the Second St. Philips Graveyard.


“This Agenda item would provide ARPA funding to Old Salem, Incorporated in an amount not to exceed $391,875 for restoration and improvements to buildings related to Old Salem’s Hidden Town Project, which tells the story of the enslaved individuals who lived and worked in the town of Salem.

Old Salem’s Hidden Town Project seeks to greatly expand and diversify the Old Salem story, and thus, the story of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County telling the stories of the estimated 135 enslaved individuals who lived and worked in the community and made enormous but unsung contributions.

While Old Salem has made progress in including stories and testimonials of enslaved individuals in exhibits and tour narratives, there is still much work to be done, particularly in refurbishing buildings that were important to the lives of the enslaved individuals and opening them to visitors as part of the official Old Salem tour experience.

The project includes the restoration of several of Old Salem’s Hidden Town buildings: The Tavern Museum, Volz Barn, Herbst House, and Blum House as well as much-needed repairs and upgrading of visitor bathrooms in Tavern Woodshed.”-March 2, 2023 Commissioners Meeting Packet

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