The visitor center often provides “step on” services for bus tours that come to our city. That is where one of us on the staff boards the bus to provide some narration to the sights. The first one that I got to do was an interesting one as it requested an African American focus. So, in addition to my trepidation as a first time tour guide, I had to do a little extra research.
Winston and Salem were two separate towns until their consolidation in 1913. Religious settlers, the Moravians, formed Salem in 1766. There were enough non-Moravian settlers in the area by the middle of the 19th century for Winston to be founded as the county seat in 1851. But Winston was only a sleepy country town until 1875 when tobacco turned it into a prominent industrial center. Richard Joshua Reynolds, founder of the tobacco company that bears his name, was a key player in the industrialization of the New South. He established his own tobacco factory in Winston and eventually became enormously successful from the sale of Prince Albert tobacco and Camel cigarettes.
African American heritage for both Salem and Winston began, of course, in the history of slavery. Moravians owned slaves but treated them well during the colonial times of the 18th century. Some slaves even converted to their religion and were integrated into daily Moravian life. Later, in the 19th century, when slavery was such an economic driver for the South, Moravian attitudes leaned more toward segregation. However this led to African American Moravians creating a separate congregation in 1822. During the Civil War, they built a church that continues today as St. Phillip’s Moravian Church, the oldest black congregation in North Carolina. (see http://goo.gl/yCDEyw)
It was from that church in Salem in 1865 a Union officer reported the news of the War’s end and the emancipation of the slaves.
Slavery was abolished but attitudes between black and white would persist. Legal segregation and discrimination would disadvantage African Americans. Racism, riots, protests, and struggles were in Winston Salem history but it was no more unique here than other places. Indeed it reflected unfortunate aspects of the nation’s history overall.
However as rich as the African American heritage is represented in Winston Salem today, there are many particular events and milestones in which our citizens take pride. So let’s get this bus rolling!
We’ll include the staples of any tour of Winston Salem: Krispy Kreme, R.J. Reynolds Estate and Wake Forest University (who claim African American notables such as author Maya Angelou, MSNBC News Host Melissa Harris-Perry and athletes Chris Paul and Tim Duncan).
But then after passing the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum (named after Lawrence Joel, a black Army medic from Winston-Salem who was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1967 for action in Vietnam), we head to the center of town.
We will soon see Lloyd Presbyterian church, the oldest historically African American church worshiping in its original building and location in Forsyth County. The sanctuary was constructed by the congregation in 1907. Lloyd Presbyterian was formed in the Depot Street area during the 1870’s as part of a national movement by Northern missionaries to establish African American churches in the South. Depot Street is today N. Patterson Avenue and in the early part of the 1900’s this was a thriving African American neighborhood that was home to black-owned real estate offices, doctor, dentist and lawyer offices, drugstores, barber and beauty shops, funeral homes, schools, movie theaters, cafes and churches.
We see the Winston Mutual Building next. It is a historic building constructed in 1969. The company was founded in 1906 by 12 black business officials who wanted to provide insurance and home mortgage products in their community.
Winston-Salem State University (WSSU) belongs to University of North Carolina family and is a historically black public research university seen as we continue on. WSSU is a recognized regional institution offering baccalaureate and graduate programs to a diverse student population. In athletics, they are NCAA division II and CIAA. In 1967, Winston-Salem State became the first Historically Black College to win an NCAA Basketball Championship. The Rams won the College Division Championship with a 31-1 record. They were led by high-scoring guard Earl Monroe, who averaged an amazing 41.5 points per game that season before being selected second overall in the 1967 NBA Draft by the Baltimore Bullets.
The campus contains the Diggs Gallery featuring African American art and in the school’s auditorium stand murals by John Thomas Biggers, an African-American muralist who came to prominence after the Harlem Renaissance and toward the end of World War II. Biggers was born in Gastonia, North Carolina.
Driving back through the center of downtown we see a bronze statue at the municipal government center of George Black. In 1889, Black walked 50 miles with his father, a former slave, and his older brother to Winston from their home in Liberty, NC. They heard they could earn $1.50 day working together as brickmakers. Black learned how to make bricks while working at the brickyard. In the 1920s, his boss gave him an old mud mill used to make bricks. His boss told Black he could use it for firewood. But Black repaired the mill and began making bricks on his own. His bricks were used to build mansions in the Buena Vista neighborhood, the Salem College Library, some of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.’s old buildings, as well as several buildings in Williamsburg, Va. In 1971, Black achieved fame when broadcaster Charles Kuralt interviewed him for a segment on “The CBS Evening News.” President Richard M. Nixon invited Black and some of his relatives to the White House later in 1971. The U.S. Agency for International Development arranged for Black to travel to Guyana to teach people there to make bricks by hand.
Our city bus terminal has a historical marker describing the Safe Bus Company. It was established in 1926 to provide a bus company for African Americans. It became the largest African American bus company in the country. In 1972 the Winston Salem Transit Authority purchased it and created a single city bus service. The city terminal is named after Clark Campbell who started driving for the Safe Bus company in 1944 and drove city buses for 62 years. The terminal is the first downtown building to be named after an African American.
Weaving through old tobacco factories that have been converted into lofts and research facilities, our tour is almost over. In the Arts District along Trade Street, I point out Sweet Potatoes restaurant that two African American women, chef Stephanie Tyson and manager Vivián Joiner, established in 2003. Tyson has written two books on soul food cuisine.
I mention to the group that in August, we will delight again when the National Black Theatre Festival will be in town. The festival and repertoire company originated in Winston Salem and now the festival is shared with Atlanta on alternating years.
The way the festival transforms downtown Winston Salem during that time makes me realize just how much the African American heritage has transformed the city to this day.