Ursula Carlson: College offered equal education before its time

On Oct. 4, I was in Old Salem, N.C., with my best friends from undergraduate school, Peggy and Carol. At Michigan State we studied German, literature, English and writing, and later when Peggy was in graduate school at Indiana, Carol at Illinois, and I at Iowa, it seemed to me a sure sign and portent of solidarity, like-mindedness, and lifelong friendship that the three of us were at universities in states whose first initial began with the letter “I.” (Perhaps crazily or obsessively, I found patterns and symbols in everything.)

And after all the many years since those days in the mid-1960s, we still are like-minded, so when Peggy suggested that we visit Salem College and the historic village of Old Salem itself, there was no discussion.

Old Salem is a Moravian community, and Salem College, a liberal arts women’s college founded as a primary school for girls in 1772, is Moravian as well. Moravians, known first as the Unity of the Brethren, were founded in Kunvald, Bohemia (Czechoslovakia), in 1457. We tend to think that Martin Luther was the first Protestant to have rebelled against the Catholic Church; however, the Moravians were actually some of the earliest Protestants to do so, and they did it 50 years before Martin Luther. As if that were not bold enough, their one very singular and “shocking” belief at the time was in universal, equal education.

As Moravians evolved, certain values dominated. Among them is the pairing of prayer and worship with a form of communal living in which personal property is held but simplicity of lifestyle and generosity with that wealth are considered important spiritual attributes. As a consequence, divisions between social groups as well as extremes of wealth and poverty were largely eliminated.

It was a sunny, warm day as we walked to the well-known restaurant in Old Salem. A slight breeze rustled the leaves and dust rose from between the cobblestones. The old building was refreshingly cool inside, but we chose to sit out on the back porch and took photos. Afterward we went to the famous bakery and bought Moravian cake and cookies (fresh from the huge wood-burning oven where the thermometer is the baker’s arm thrust in to gauge the heat).

Salem College is one street over from the town; the campus of red brick buildings, trees, fountains, gardens, curving paths and steps is lit by sun and shade. It’s Southern in all its charm. In 1766, when Elizabeth Oesterlein was 17, she walked from Bethlehem, Pa., to Salem, N.C., and on April 22, 1772, founded Little Girls School. It was among the first to accept non-white students; that is, both Negroes and Indians. Later it became a high school and then a college. Today it’s the oldest female educational establishment that is still a women’s college, although men 23 years old and older are admitted into continuing education and graduate degree programs. The Single Sisters’ House, built in 1785, is the oldest building in the U.S. dedicated to the education of women.

As we walked through that house and read the placards on the ancient walls, we marveled at the enlightened old Moravians who were so ahead of their time in a place (the South) that we tend to think of as backward, and we felt solidarity and like-mindedness not only with ourselves but with all those women and girls who had gone before us.

Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.


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