Elisabeth Oesterlein by Linda Harris Sittig


Education was always a priority in our family. My father pursued a B.S. in Accounting from New York University because as a World War II Veteran he could attend under the G.I. Bill. After graduating from high school, my mother enrolled herself in the Katherine Gibbs School of Philadelphia. By the time I was sixteen, my parents sat me down and told me I would go on for a higher education. It was simply a given, although there were geographic and financial stipulations. I chose Grove City College in western Pennsylvania and honestly never gave a thought to the fact that American women didn’t always have the privilege of being admitted to a college or university.

For that opportunity we need to look back to a small rural area in North Carolina and the day that Elisabeth Oesterlein arrived in town.

A small village had been settled by the Moravians, a Protestant society sometimes referred to as the Brethrens. Their group migrated from Pennsylvania in the mid 1700s to the wild frontier of North Carolina, where they established the settlement of Salem—now a part of the modern town of Winston-Salem. What set the Moravians apart from most other groups of their time was their belief that women should have a comparable education with men.

In 1770 Elisabeth Oesterlein wanted to go help the Moravians in Salem, but there was a slight obstacle. Elisabeth lived in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, 500 miles away. She rounded up a group of  Single Sisters, and together the sixteen females walked their way from Pennsylvania to North Carolina, often sleeping in barns, or out under the stars.

Elisabeth was seventeen years old.

She arrived in Salem at a time when the Moravians were working to establish a school for young girls, and Elisabeth was the perfect candidate to become the first teacher. In April of 1772 Elisabeth rang the bell for opening day of school, housed temporarily inside the Congregation Meeting House. Three girls were enrolled. The school had originally been intended for Moravian daughters but Salem had grown into a trading center with non-Moravians  coming into town for shopping and supplies. As fame about the school spread, other families wanted their daughters to apply for an education as well.

By 1786 the school was running smoothly. During that year there were now thirty-three Single Sisters working in Salem. They lived together in a large house built specifically for their needs, and became a small communal unit of their own. Elisabeth was a vital part of that unit.

In 1802 the school became designated as a boarding school where young females of various religions could be educated in both academic and practical pursuits. Within three years a brand new red brick building was constructed and while Elisabeth and the other teachers were completely capable of offering instruction, the elders of the church wanted a man to become the principal of the school. A minister from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania was hired.

He did not walk the 500 miles.

As the school progressed, more girls arrived. By 1826 the first Native American girl was enrolled, a member of the Cherokee tribe.

For the price of twenty tuition dollars, girls would receive instruction in reading, arithmetic, writing, history, geography, and German. For an additional sum they could also receive training in music. While only families with financial means could afford to send their daughters to Salem, the school continued to thrive even in tough economic times.

During the 1860s when the Civil War tore the nation apart, the Salem School did not shut down their classes as many other Southern institutions did. Instead, the teachers continued to instruct their female students with the belief that an educated woman would make for a better contributing member of society.

By 1866 the school was now called the Salem Female Academy and by 1890 it conferred its first college degrees to seven women. This institution dedicated to educating females was by then already 118 years old.

Today, Salem College is acknowledged as the oldest women’s school in the United States. Each year one graduating senior is presented with the Oesterlein Award given in memory of Elisabeth Oesterlein who devoted her life to insuring that women could receive an equal education to that of men.

Remember that my parents put a geographic limit on my choice of college? It was my mother’s belief that only schools north of the Mason-Dixon Line could offer a decent college education for young women. Obviously she did not know of Salem’s reputation. I did receive my college degree and I salute Elisabeth Oesterlein who paved the way for me.

Thanks to Dr. Cort Johns of the Netherlands for pointing out another strong woman.

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About lhsittig

I am a freelance writer who specializes in historical fiction that showcases strong female protagonists. In non-fiction I focus on literacy tips for parents and teachers to help children become life long readers.
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