By Peter Morgan
Hanging in the lobby of Salem’s History Museum on East Main Street is Gray’s 1883 map of the town. In a section that briefly describes the nascent, growing burg, it notes Salem as a “pleasant moral town.”
Peggy Shifflett, interim director of the museum, came up with the idea to feature aspects of early Salem in an exhibit that will last until May 1. The exhibit presents photographs, artifacts and memorabilia from Salem in the 19th and 20th centuries. It covers some aspects of historical relevance in early Salem, ranging from the development of the industrialized economy to family life, religion and education.
Salem relied upon industry to develop into the city that resembles the one known today. Its growth was realized by at least the beginning of the 20th century, when economic opportunities sprouted.
According to the exhibit in the Salem Museum, Valleydale Meats “was a major employer in Salem from 1936 to 2005.” The exhibit also states that citizens in early Salem farmed and worked in foundries. They were also employed at coal, lumber and brick yards to supply the bustling town with raw materials for infrastructural purposes.
One significant feature of early Salem would be its educational institutions. Prior to integration, Salem had schools designated by race. Carver School, which started in 1939, was one such school.
According to Anna Cory, assistant director at the Salem Museum, by the time the school opened to African American students “it was pretty ramshackle…they made do with what they could have.”
“Carver was a major step-up for the African American children to have a central school,” she added.
Carver School included K-12 education for African Americans before desegregation, and featured a basketball team.
An important figure in the African American school system preceding integration was Carver School’s first principal, Theron N. Williams. In Salem’s local museum on a plaque depicting his likeness and a memoriam entry, he’s described as “a dedicated member of the teaching profession,” who served Carver as head principal for over two decades.
He’s further remembered as “an outstanding civics and religious leader” who through his efforts provided opportunities for black school teachers through arbitration with academic institutions in the local region, such as Roanoke College and the University of Virginia.
In addition to schooling being a “major organizing principle” of early Salem, according to Cory, religion was also prominent. The town represented several Christian denominations. Cory describes the museum’s exhibit on early Christian life in Salem as a centralizing force of the community, and an accurate depiction of the range of Salem’s early diversity.
“In the entire collection that we put together here for growing up in Salem, we wanted to portray the whole entirety of the population,” Cory said, adding that this includes all races and denominations, diverse that they were.
“We know there was kind of a dichotomy that went on,” Cory continues, “but we are one community.”
Cory maintains that “each group kind of had their own religious expressions” as Christians living in Salem. Featured in the city’s museum were photographs of the John Wesley Methodist Church, whose congregation was predominantly black, as well as the African American Episcopal Church.
“We just wanted to give a fuller snapshot of what sort of experiences people had growing up in Salem,” Cory said.
The exhibit functions as a means to bring the community together in order to collectively reflect on the city’s humble beginnings as a hamlet, and trace its historical trajectory to the present by objectively promulgating early Salem’s prevalent features.
Shifflett explains that the early Salem exhibit attracts a lot of people looking to reflect on the town’s past, and sometimes their own past within Salem. Museum patrons have been known to bring both their enthusiasms for Salem’s history as well as their own contributions to add to the collection, making the historical exhibit on early Salem both interactive and engaging.
“They start contributing, so it’s been an evolving exhibit so far,” Shifflett said.
Shifflett said she hopes to reach out to the community and expose local educational institutions to the museum’s early Salem historical exhibit.
Members of the historical society will be participating in a “talking exhibit” during an open house and reception on Friday, March 11, from 7- 8:30 p.m.
The museum is located on 801 East Main Street and is free to the public.