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What once was a huge steam plant that powered the manufacturing facility at R.J. Reynolds in Winston-Salem, N.C., is now a public gathering space that features restaurants and a venue for concerts. Photo by Jerry Ondash
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In Winston-Salem, discovering the histories behind the hyphen

“This view, right here, represents the hyphen in Winston-Salem,” announces my cousin, David Norman, a longtime resident of this North Carolina city with a metro population of more than a half-million.

He is escorting us to the city’s important historical and contemporary sites and has made an astute observation. Beneath our feet, representing the right side of the hyphen, is the Salem Moravian Graveyard. It is the resting place of the Moravian pioneers who founded the settlement of Salem in 1753.

Looking up and to the north, we see a representation of the left side of the hyphen — the city’s tallest building — the domed Wells Fargo Center, constructed in 1995.

The historic and the modern, the agrarian and the industrial — they existed side-by-side until 1913, when the two cities merged.

The 40-acre, emerald-grass cemetery is blanketed with endless, meticulously aligned rows of identical alabaster tombstones that lie nearly flush with the ground. The graves are grouped according to sex and display no embellishments.

The simplicity and uniformity of the stones gives testimony to the Moravian belief that all are equal in the eyes of God and community. Known as “God’s Acre,” the cemetery is still used by today’s Moravian Salem Congregation.

Protestants who predate Lutherans by a century, Moravians came to North America in 1735 from today’s Czech Republic. Their history and culture lives in Winston-Salem’s Old Salem Historic District.

A National Historic Landmark, the district encompasses nearly seven dozen restored and reconstructed buildings and gardens embraced by leafy, mature trees — a good place to be on this warm day. Each church, home, shop, school and tavern tell a story, and on occasion, well-versed guides in authentic costumes reenact life and the trades of this 18th century village.

The Salem Moravian Graveyard, known as God’s Acre, holds all of Old Salem’s pioneers who founded the settlement in 1753. The graves are grouped according to sex and date of death, and the cemetery is still used today by a consortium of 12 local Moravian churches. Photo by E’Louise Ondash

Local researchers also “are leaning into the conversation” about the legacies of the African Americans who lived in Salem. One compelling narrative is that of St. Philips Moravian Church. Built in 1822, it is the oldest, continuously operating Black church in the state, and the only Black Moravian church in the country. Early congregations consisted of both whites and Blacks, but eventually the mores of slavery caused division.

In 1865, a cavalry chaplain read the Emancipation Proclamation to the Black congregation in St. Philips’ sanctuary.

Jump ahead about 40 years to find the story of Winston, inescapably tied to R.J. Reynolds and his tobacco empire. Its presence “meant just about everything to the city for 75 years,” David says.

The history and many mutations of R.J. Reynolds between 1913 and the present is voluminous and complicated. Easier to see is the scope of the company’s size and influence. David leads us through what was once the Bailey Power Plant, which produced the steam and electricity necessary to manufacture, in multiple steps, millions of cigarettes. The plant employed thousands, and Reynolds donated to charitable concerns.

I’m at once in awe and angry.

I think of the engineering genius it took to create this plant and the corporation’s contribution to the city’s economy and cultural scene, but also the millions of lives adversely affected by tobacco products.

While R.J. Reynolds’ corporate headquarters is still in Winston-Salem, it manufactures tobacco products in nearby Tobaccoville. The original plant became an industrial ghost town, but is enjoying renewed life as the Innovation Quarter. Described as a “mixed-use hub,” it works to attract startups and established companies; research and educational institutions; and residential, restaurant and retail enterprises.

“A big part of the story here is the adaptive use of buildings,” says David, whose skill in making 3D laser models of old buildings helped architects figure out how to reimagine the structures’ uses while maintaining the integrity of their designs.

The tasteful melding of preservation and renewal is apparent. It’s an urban design that feels comfortable and welcoming. Where once there was a parking lot and empty buildings, there now are pedestrian trails; Bailey Park, a lovely expanse of grass dotted with colorful umbrellas and café tables; and restaurants nestled in the arches of the former steam plant.

Wake Forest University School of Medicine has a strong presence in the quarter, as well as 160-plus other companies, many representing technology and research. According to the quarter’s stats, there are 3,700 employees, 8,000 workforce trainees and 1,800 students working within the area.

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