A new urban park is coming to the Triad. Its roots date back to the 18th century, and an African American story that’s unique to Winston-Salem.
The Single Brothers’ House in Old Salem was completed in 1769 — timber framing, exposed brick, clay tile roof — and the enormous space has the feel of an ancient dorm. Up to 60 Single Brothers would eat, sleep and worship in this building.
Old Salem Museums & Gardens President and CEO Terry Taylor says at the age of about 14, a Moravian boy would have completed his formal education and come here to this building to live. "Here he would have been trained to have been a tradesman of some type. And then he would have lived here his entire life unless he got married."
In 1786, one of them was Black, born into enslavement, and his name was Oliver. His story began years earlier in Virginia. Old Salem’s Director of Moravian Research Martha Hartley says after his enslaver rented him as a laborer to a Moravian man in Bethania, Oliver became very concerned that his owner in Virginia was going to sell him. So, she says, he asked the Moravians to buy him.
"Here we already see — this is a teenager, 19 years old — he is already using his agency to press for what he wants," says Hartley. "He’s asked them to buy him which they did. He’s baptized which provides him the opportunity within this Moravian world to be a spiritual equal."
Baptized Petrus or Peter Oliver, he would go on to leverage his agency in many other ways. He became a skilled potter, further enhancing his value, saved money through the sale of his wares, and eventually was able to purchase his freedom through diligence and a well-orchestrated plan.
In 1800, the Moravian Church in Salem sold Oliver to a Moravian from Pennsylvania, where the gradual abolition of slavery had already begun.
"Peter Oliver goes to Pennsylvania, goes before a magistrate to say, ‘I’m held unlawfully,’" says Hartley. "He has his document that says that he’s the property of so-and-so. So, he went before this judge and the judge says, ‘That’s right.’ So, it was really a quite brilliant plan, and because the Moravians here in Salem were closely tied to the Moravians in Pennsylvania, they were able to make it work."
Peter Oliver returned to Salem, eventually married, settled down, farmed a four-acre plot of land, and raised a family. By the time of his death in 1810, he’d become an esteemed member of the community, and was the last known Black Moravian to have been buried alongside whites in God’s Acre — the Moravian communicants’ term for cemetery.
Each year, Peter Oliver’s many descendants gather to honor his life and their connection to his legacy. And his story may soon be celebrated year-round in a very public way. The planned Peter Oliver Pavilion Gallery, a new urban park, will be built on the same four-acre tract of land that he farmed more than two centuries ago.
At the design drawings unveiling ceremony in Single Brother’s House, Oliver descendant Hobart Jones Sr. addressed the audience.
"My sister is in charge of the family reunion this year," he began. "It’ll be in Winston-Salem. The people coming, they’re all excited, and they don’t even have a clue of what all they’re missing [laughter]. But we’re going to show them come August — the second weekend in August. I’m just grateful that I’m still here sharing with my children, this community, because we’ve got a story to tell."
And that story will be told in a public space for the first time in this city, shining a light on the rich and varied African American legacy in Winston-Salem and Forsyth County forged in part by that of Peter Oliver and his descendants.
The park is being designed by Oakland-based landscape architect Walter Hood who presented his drawings. His work creating public spaces for reflection on issues of race and others can be found in major cities across the U.S.
The Charlotte native and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University alumnus says this project is unique.
"One of the wonderful things here in Salem is there’s a larger story," says Hood. "And the story is Moravia the community and then the story of an enslaved person coming into a community and advocating for his own freedom. So, once you start collecting all of this history you see that African Americans are a diverse culture of people in American history."
Seeing this project come to fruition, returning full circle to the same place where their ancestor lived and worked, is a source of pride for Peter Oliver’s descendants. Among those in attendance at the unveiling was Robin Paul, mother of Wake Forest University standout and NBA basketball superstar Chris Paul.
"Because you think back 250 years, don’t nobody go back there that far," says Paul. "You know a lot of families can go maybe 100 years, but 250 years? So, we are really blessed and honored to be part of this Oliver family."
A silent capital campaign for the Peter Oliver Pavilion Gallery is underway. It’s led by the Creative Corridors Coalition whose goal is to raise between $6 and $10 million for the park.
*Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified how many Single Brothers would have lived in the Single Brothers' House. The story has been updated with the correct figure.