Carl White's Life in the Carolinas

Winter Walks
A Historic Stroll through Old Salem’s Hidden Town 
by Suzelle Sinclair
suzelle.sinclair@earthlink.net

I have great respect for the past.
If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you are going.
I have respect for the past, but I’m a person of the moment.
I’m here, and I do my best to be completely centered at the place I am at, then go forward to the next place.
~Maya Angelou 

While past visits to Old Salem have been bustling with visitors, horse-drawn carriages and museum staff dressed in traditional eighteenth century attire, today due to COVID restrictions, the shops are closed and the streets are empty. This rare opportunity to walk these historic grounds in solitude presents a unique perspective. Without modern distractions, the past steps out to speak. 

Today, it is easy to envision a time long past. I imagine walking in the steps of the young Anna Maria Samuel. She was the eldest daughter of Johann and Maria Samuel. Her father was the first enslaved person purchased by the Moravians in North Carolina in 1769. In 1793, at the age of 12, Anna moved from the nearby Moravian community of Bethabara to Salem for admission to the Single Sisters Choir. She lived in the Single Sisters House and studied at the school. 

Standing in front of the Single Sisters House on the edge of the town square, I pause and envision her with the other girls. I try to imagine how she must have felt as a young enslaved Black girl in this Moravian community. Although able to study and live alongside the white Moravian sisters, it must have been challenging to be different. In 1797, because her maternal grandmother was white, Anna, her mother and four siblings were freed. I wonder if that changed the way others saw her. I wonder if that changed how she saw herself. Sadly, Anna fell ill and died the following year. 

From the Single Sisters House I continue to walk down what is now Church Street. Near the end of the street is the original home of St. Philips Moravian Church. Built in 1822, it remains the only Black Historic Moravian African America congregation in the country and the oldest African American church standing in North Carolina. The Samuel family was among the founders. 

Looking at the mortar between the logs, I wonder if Johann’s finger ran along any of these grooves to smooth the mortar. Did he cut or lift the logs? And as he worked to build the church, was his head and heart filled with the sweet songs that Anna had sung just years before? 

As I turn to leave, an old German hymn by Martin Luther begins to play in my mind: “Ein fest Burg its unser Gott”; the familiar “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” 

Though I have visited Old Salem countless times, today I feel as though I met two significant residents of this historic place. Their presence and a hidden town made more aware by the solitude of the day. 

PAINTING BY SUZELLE SINCLAIR OF HER ENVISIONING OF YOUNG ANNA MARIA SAMUEL

The Hidden Town Project is an initiative of Old Salem Museums & Gardens to research and reveal the history of enslaved and free people of African descent in Salem, North Carolina. To learn more, visit: www.oldsalem.org/core-initiatives/hidden-town-project 

CHARLOTTE WEATHER