Old Salem exhibit honors Mel White’s research, history of Happy Hill

Old Salem exhibit honors Mel White’s research, history of Happy Hill
May 26
07:06 2022

The history of Happy Hill, the first African American neighborhood in present day Winston-Salem, dates back more than 150 years, and to honor that history Old Salem has opened an exhibit that includes rare photos, stories, interviews, current research and memories of Happy Hill titled “Selections from Across the Creek.”

In addition to the collection of archived photos and oral histories collected by Mel White, Old Salem’s first director of African American programs, the exhibit also includes a collection of portraits by artist and photographer Leo Rucker. During the opening ceremony for the exhibit, White, who served as circulation manager for The Chronicle before joining Old Salem, was honored for his dedication to archiving the history of the “Mother of all Black Neighborhoods” in Winston-Salem.

Martha Hartley, director of Moravian Research and co-chair of the Hidden Town Project at Old Salem, applauded White for his work. In 1998, shortly after he joined Old Salem, White started reaching out to residents far and wide in his pursuit to preserve the history of the neighborhood, which dates back to 1836. 

In October 1836, 18 formerly enslaved and five free African Americans left Salem for Millsberg, Liberia. Seventeen of these emigrants had been owned by Friedrich Schumann, laboring on his plantation here on the high ground south of Salem. In 1872, after the Civil War and emancipation, the Salem Congregation established a neighborhood for freedmen on Schumann’s former plantation. The neighborhood initially was known as Liberia, recalling those who had emigrated. By 1874, the name Happy Hill was used for the neighborhood, which grew steadily between 1880 and 1920. The city’s first public housing development began in Happy Hill during the 1950s. White’s research continued until 2005 and led to the creation of the exhibit Across the Creek from Salem: The Story of Happy Hill, 1816-1952. 

“Across the Creek brought together history, photographs, stories, and memories of the people of Happy Hill,” Hartley said during the opening ceremony. 

“Because of its significance to the community, we began a project three years ago to bring the photographs back to view. Things were postponed,  so we are especially honored to be here on Freedom Day 2022 and to recognize the 150th anniversary of Happy Hill.”

During the ceremony several former residents of Happy Hill, including Forsyth County Commissioner Fleming El-Amin, Maurice Pitts Johnson, Peggy Hale, Barbara Chisholm Morris, Patricia Sadler, and. Cheryl Harry, reflected on their time spent in Happy Hill. Although they all had their own accounts from the neighborhood, they all said it was like one big family. 

For his personal collection, White was presented with a portrait painted by Leo Rucker. After the painting was unveiled, White said he was honored to be recognized. He also took time to reflect on some of his research and the need for the research to continue. 

“For every story that we know about so far, there are 10 others out there,” he said. “We’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of what’s waiting to be discovered and waiting to be told.” 

Selections from Across the Creek is on display at the Old Salem Visitors Center, 900 Old Salem Road. For more information on Selections from Across the Creek, visit 

About Author

Tevin Stinson

Tevin Stinson

Related Articles


Featured Sponsor

Receive Chronicle Updates

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.



More Sponsors