May Community Partner Spotlight: Old Salem Museums & Gardens

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Each month, the Office of Civic & Community Engagement (OCCE) profiles a community partner and its relationship with Wake Forest University. For the month of May, the OCCE is proud to feature Frank Vagone, President and CEO of Old Salem Museums & Gardens and Dr. Meredith Farmer, Wake Forest  Assistant Teaching Professor of Core Literature.

Old Salem Museums & Gardens presents an authentic view of the rich cultural history of early Southern life to diverse audiences – with special emphasis on the Moravians in North Carolina – through the preservation and interpretation of historic objects, buildings, and landscapes.

In addition to all that Old Salem does, they have partnered with Dr. Farmer and her English 150 class, Hidden Town: Slave Narratives, National and Local, to develop Hidden Town: A Virtual Exhibit, as a part of Old Salem’s Hidden Town Project that researches and reveals the history of a community of enslaved and free Africans and African Americans who once lived in Salem, N.C. Hidden Town: A Virtual Exhibit shows students’ work to produce a digital exhibit that interprets and helps contextualize those lost and repressed stories with both research and creative responses to a series of objects in the museum that have been linked to the project. 

To learn more about Old Salem, please visit their website, or follow them on their social channels via Instagram, or Facebook.

Experience Hidden Town: A Virtual Exhibit

Frank Vagnone
President and CEO of Old Salem Museums & Gardens

Could you briefly explain the history of Old Salem Museums & Gardens and how it impacts the Winston-Salem community? 

Old Salem is a historic site that documents one of the first settlements in North Carolina, which was the town of Salem. Salem was founded by Moravians in 1753, as part of a larger area of land, now known as Forsyth County. Salem is central to this region, not only through its geographic and political history but also through its cultural and social ties. 

Prior to the Moravians settling on this land, it was inhabited by Native Americans, who were pushed out by settlers. Almost immediately after arriving, they brought in enslaved individuals that inhabited slave dwellings behind the homes of Moravian families to build the town and contribute to the mercantile prosperity of Salem. The town of Salem is directly tied to the origins of what is now Winston-Salem. The land that Winston was built upon was originally Moravian land that they sold so Winston could grow. Eventually, the two towns joined together to form Winston-Salem.

Though this is a very brief overview of Salem’s history, at the museum we focus on the histories and the narratives of Old Salem that are deeply embedded in every social justice, political, and geographic issue surrounding us. This isn’t a marginal historical site that had nothing to do with the region, Salem is at the core of Winston-Salem. 

On Old Salem’s website, you can look at all of the Core Initiatives held by Old Salem, to engage with the community around our history. One of them is the Hidden Town Project: an initiative to research and reveal the history of a community of enslaved and free Africans and African Americans who once lived in Salem, N.C. This is what we’ve been working on with Dr. Farmer and her class with the Hidden Town: A Virtual Tour. 

In the wake of COVID-19, what has Old Salem’s response been to the community? How has this changed your programming?

Before the state of North Carolina closed down with the Executive Order, we had already pivoted all of our educational materials to be online, with our Exploratorium, which has online field trips for children and families to explore Old Salem. We know that educational opportunities would be a need during this time, so it’s exciting that we are able to engage with the community in this way. 

Additionally, as soon as we closed to the public, we decided to transform all of the demonstration gardens into Victory Gardens and produce vegetables for local food banks. We have also opened our bakery, which is operating solely to bake bread for the Second Harvest Food Bank. 

We made clear moves to transform what we normally do, with our remaining staff, and address critical issues in the community. I’m really proud of the dedication our staff has put in to make this a possibility. 

Old Salem has been partnering with Dr. Farmer and her class to develop Hidden Town: A Virtual Exhibit, how did this project get started, and what are you most proud of with this partnership? 

Dr. Farmer was interested in the work we were doing with the Hidden Town Project at Old Salem from the get-go. Following initial conversations about the Project, she was introduced to some of the resources and artifacts we had, specifically in the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts. When we introduced her to this she realized that this could be a good way to overlap literature with history. 

We developed the idea that students could research primary artifacts and produce narratives for them that would then be presented publicly through our website. This partnership fit right into the Hidden Town Project’s sequence of learning because we were able to combine our expectations and goals to jump right in with planning and building the virtual exhibit.  

How do you think this project will impact Old Salem and the broader community? 

Without question, I think this project will have a major impact. As part of the Hidden Town Project, our plan is to investigate every Salem town lot to find out who the enslaved were, including their names and biographies, to our best ability. Our goal is to form a descendant community who can help advise us with long term interpretation of the site. 

In addition to the town lots, we are continually investigating our artifacts from the perspective of Hidden Town. This is what Dr. Farmer’s class has been working on, doing research on the respective artifacts and creating a narrative, which we can then share on social media and the website they’ve produced. This will directly impact how individuals view the collections at Old Salem. 

Also, a lot of community members have never been to Old Salem or even heard about the museum. This is mainly because it is still viewed primarily as a white history site; a lot of Salem’s history has been whitewashed and hidden. With this situation, a lot of people don’t want to visit, because there’s no reason to. So, that has really been the impetus for producing the Hidden Town Project because the site should be for everyone. My goal is to reduce the level of nostalgia at Old Salem and increase the level of history, research, and authenticity.

How can community members and students get involved with Old Salem now, and once social-distancing measures are no longer in effect?

Right now, we are temporarily closed, so individuals wouldn’t be able to get involved until social distancing measures are lifted, which probably won’t be until Spring 2021. 

However, once these measures are out of effect, we will need volunteers to help with the primary research on the Hidden Town project. Volunteers will be able to come to the research lab and go through documents to investigate and help us find the names and narratives of the enslaved. I believe this is a very important volunteer effort and we would love to have individuals who are interested in the project. You can see Hidden Town and other volunteer opportunities here.

Dr. Meredith Farmer
Assistant Teaching Professor of Core Literature

How did you get involved with Old Salem, and what is your primary goal with Hidden Town: A Virtual Exhibit?

My involvement really came from a matter of talking with people I knew in town. I already knew Frank well, and one day we started talking in detail about the Hidden Town Project. After learning more about the Project, I really thought it was something Wake Forest needed to be a part of. It was also a great educational opportunity because I was looking at offering a lower division course on slave narratives. I thought that combining a class with the Hidden Town Project would be interesting and important in making slavery real and personal for Wake Forest students. 

Part of the reason I have my students read slave narratives, as opposed to just learning facts about slavery, is to make it feel more real and less abstract or distant. The narratives evoke empathy and can be overwhelming, but students get a sense of history and its impact, especially in a local setting. For example, if there wasn’t slavery in this region, there wouldn’t be a Wake Forest University because there wouldn’t even be a Winston that broke off from Salem. So, I thought this would be a great opportunity to build collaboration and have students learn about the history of our community, while simultaneously helping to produce a public-facing website for Old Salem. 

There are two primary goals for this website, as a whole. The first is to reach students, specifically middle schoolers, and teachers with this educational material. Along with creating narratives for historical objects, Wake Forest students have also produced educational resources for middle schoolers and in-depth research papers for teachers to prepare their students prior to Old Salem museum tours. The second goal is to impact the broader community of people interested in this topic and to be able to present this lost history.  

I also want to mention that Hidden Town: A Virtual Exhibit is only a section of the Hidden Town Project. The actual project, which has been one of Frank’s major initiatives, involves going through their archival documents and telling the actual story of slavery in Winston-Salem, which has been forgotten for some time. They’re going lot by lot in Old Salem to dig up as much information as possible and make these stories visible. 

Experience Hidden Town: A Virtual Exhibit

What are you most proud of with this partnership, and what is your highlight so far?

The highlight for me has been seeing the way people have come together since we’ve moved to virtual learning due to COVID-19. When we found out that Wake Forest classes were going online and Old Salem was going to close within three days of each other, we had a Zoom meeting to figure out whether this project was still sustainable. From that meeting, we decided that we were going to have to go above and beyond to make this website a possibility, and that’s just what we’ve done. 

We’ve been able to continue an archival-based project, originally dependent upon museum space, and pull from the resources we had available to shape the website. A silver lining with COVID-19 is that everything has moved online. Communities, now more than ever, are looking for online educational material; so, at least we can help educate people and really circulate this as a resource. This has also increased our motivation, it’s been exciting to see the collaboration across all areas as we worked together towards a mission that we believed in.

What are some things that you have done to maintain this partnership in the midst of COVID-19? 

None of this would have happened without so much willingness and collaboration from the people at Old Salem and Wake Forest. I just want to give a special thank you to Brianna Derr, Carrie Johnston, Kathy Shields, and Molly Keener at Wake Forest, along with Frank Vagnone, John Yeagley, Daniel Ackermann, Johanna Brown, Karen Walter, Martha Hartley, Scott Carpenter, and Ruthie Dibble. 

This team went above and beyond to meet with students over Zoom to provide guidance and answer questions. They provided feedback, vision, and instruction. They also assisted with student research and building multimedia presentations. So, this project truly shows the community building that’s happened within this microsect of Winston-Salem. I think there’s always been this division between Wake Forest and the community, but with this project, I really felt like everyone was working towards the same goal, with positive energy. 

What lessons have you learned from this partnership about collaborative work between the university and community partners? 

Most of the time when people talk about community-based projects, they are solely focused on how the University can help, but I’ve come to think of the partnership with Old Salem as a deeply reciprocal relationship. 

They have provided us with so many extra resources as we’ve built this website for them. I’ve really felt like we’ve been a team working together on this project; where different people bring different resources, skills, and perspectives to the table.  Collaboration has been the main lesson I’ve taken from this experience: that a project is impactful when a team is invested together, without hierarchy. The more you eliminate any kind of hierarchy, the better engagement will be. 

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