It’d be fun to know what the 18th-century Moravians who formed Salem would think of Frank Vagnone, who has been shaking things up at the Winston-Salem historic site since arriving as president of Old Salem Inc. in March. Among his projects: Researching the history of slavery at the community, which turns out to be a lot like many other Southern towns in the early 19th century. Vagnone, 53, came south after working as executive director of the Historic House Trust, which oversees 23 houses in New York City, including Gracie Mansion, the home for Big Apple mayors. He also runs a consulting firm, Twisted Preservation, and is an active public speaker with recent stops in Bali, London and Charlotte, where he spoke to the annual meeting of Preservation North Carolina, which promotes historic restoration.
What prompted you to come to Winston-Salem?
Old Salem asked me if I was interested in the job, and I said no, for many reasons. It was the land of HB2, and I went on and on why it wouldn’t work. I asked them to read my book and my blog, which I thought would end our talks in a hurry. But they said, ‘We get it, and we want to use Old Salem as a pilot site for innovation in living-history museums.’
After lots of negotiating back and forth, here we are. We kept our apartment in New York and we are continuing Twisted Preservation, which I think will help Old Salem. My life partner John Yeagley is vice president of our consulting firm, and he manages all the logistics. He puts me in the direction of where I need to go. But Old Salem is definitely a full-time job.
Did you get pushback with your plans to study slavery at Old Salem?
There was no pushback, and that is not what I expected. Whenever you are trying innovations there are differing views — I call it poking the giant. What it’s really done is enliven the giant to become engaged. All I’ve found from constituents in and out of Old Salem, including the board, various foundations and elected officials, is nothing but a keen interest in how this project is moving forward.
What we have found is that there really are no other sites that have such written and photographic evidence of the enslaved narrative as we have at Old Salem. It helps that the Moravians were precise in creating historic documents.
Did Moravians approve of slavery?
Nothing is simple, as everyone should know living in the middle of a purple swing state like North Carolina. It was no different back then. Moravians had incredibly difficult conversations on whether to engage in slavery. Old Salem was essentially a commune. The church owned everything, and the church purchased slaves. We have evidence that some of the slaves begged the Moravians to buy them because they didn’t want to go back to the Virginia plantations where they had previously lived.
Moravians were struggling with issues of human bondage and how another person could be my spiritual equal, yet also owned by me.
Over time, Old Salem became more secular, and the church was weaker, and people could buy their own slaves. By the time just before the Civil War, Old Salem became like every other North Carolina town, with a considerable number of slaves.
How have you gotten along with the board?
I remember someone telling me when I got to town, ‘I can’t believe they hired a gay man, because that board is so stodgy.’ Well, my board has been 100% supportive and helped us activate programs more quickly than in the past. And we’ve done this while tightening our financial budget to maintain a 5% draw on our endowment. The board has been great.
You have lots of ties to Charlotte, right?
I moved there in 1976 and was in the sixth grade when I was bused to an elementary school in north Charlotte. Without a doubt, desegregation, or forced busing or whatever you call it, changed my life. I still have Facebook friends from both sides of Charlotte today because of that. I also attended Albemarle Road Middle School and Independence High School, then I studied architecture at UNC Charlotte and earned a master’s degree in architectural design at Columbia University.
Bonus question: What are your impressions of North Carolina in 2018?
At Old Salem, we have people who are very right wing, Trump backers and others are very left wing, Bernie-Hillary supporters. I’ve had to throw away my preconceptions of either side. I love Winston-Salem because I can go to the gay film festival in Winston-Salem with a Trump supporter because he’s become our friend.