Winston-Salem State University was founded as Slater Industrial Academy on September 28, 1892. It began in a one-room frame structure with 25 pupils and one teacher. In 1895 the school was recognized by the State of North Carolina and in 1899 it was chartered by the state as Slater Industrial and State Normal School.

In 1925, the General Assembly of North Carolina recognized the school's curriculum above high school, changed its name to Winston-Salem Teachers College and empowered it under authority of the State Board of Education to confer appropriate degrees. Winston-Salem Teachers College thus became the first black institution in the nation to grant degrees for teaching in the elementary grades.

The School of Nursing was established in 1953 and awards graduates the bachelor of science degree. In 1963 the North Carolina General Assembly authorized changing the name from Winston-Salem Teachers College to Winston-Salem State College. A statute designating Winston-Salem State College as Winston-Salem State University received legislative approval in 1969. On October 30, 1971, the
General Assembly reorganized higher education in North Carolina. On July 1, 1972, Winston-Salem State University became one of 16 constituent institutions of the University of North Carolina subject to the control of a Board of Governors.

Since its founding in 1892, Winston-Salem State University has grown from a one-room frame structure to more than 39 buildings located on 117 acres; from one teacher to more than 300 faculty
members; and from 25 pupils to a student body of more than 5600. The university offers 60 programs: 45 bachelor’s degree programs; nine master’s degree programs (business administration, computer science and information technology, elementary education, English as a second language and linguistics, master of arts in teaching, nursing, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and rehabilitation counseling); and six certificate programs (non-profit administration, family nurse practitioner, advanced nurse educator, add-on licensure program in English as a second language, special education, academically/intellectually gifted, and computer programming).

From 2001-2007, U.S.News and World Report magazine has ranked Winston-Salem State University among the top regional, public, liberal arts colleges in the South in its annual “America’s Best Colleges” guide.