University Building Identified as One of the U.S.’ First Schools for Black Children

The Williamsburg Bray School educated around 400 free and enslaved students between 1760 and 1774

A Rediscovered Schoolhouse
An early 20th-century photo of the building in its original location on Prince George Street in Williamsburg, Virginia Courtesy of John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library / Colonial Williamsburg

An unassuming white cottage with quaint shutters and a brick chimney has stood on the outskirts of the College of William & Mary’s campus in Williamsburg, Virginia, for centuries.

Now, reports Joe Heim for the Washington Post, researchers have identified the building, which most recently housed the university’s military science department, as one of the first schools for black children in the Americas. Per the Virginian-Pilot’s Joanne Kimberlin, the structure is the only known one of its kind still standing,

Literary scholar Terry L. Meyers first learned of the building in 2004, when he read a memoir that referenced an 18th-century edifice transported to the college campus around 1930, notes Maria Cramer for the New York Times. After completing archival research and working with scientists to date the structure’s wooden frame, Meyers realized that the building was the original location of the Williamsburg Bray School, an educational institution open to enslaved and free African American students between 1760 and 1774.

“The people whose lives are easiest are those whose belongings generally tend to survive,” Ronald L. Hurst, vice president for museums, preservation and historic resources at Colonial Williamsburg, tells Claire Hogan of the Flat Hat student newspaper. “The people whose lives were hardest generally had less, and it tends not to survive. So finding a building that was used in this way is just a really exciting development.”

The historic Bray-Digges House, as seen today
The historic Bray-Digges House, as seen today College of William & Mary

Researchers used dendrochronology—a scientific technique that analyzes tree rings to determine when wood was harvested—to date the building’s timber framework to late 1759 or early 1760. The section that housed the school was a “three-bay, story-and-a-half-building” with two open rooms that spanned the length of the building, according to a statement. Many original features are still intact, notes the Pilot, including the first-floor frame, walnut staircase, window ribbons, floorboards and chimney.

The school was part of English clergyman Thomas Bray’s Associates of Dr. Bray, a London-based group established to give enslaved African Americans a “proper religious education,” per the Pilot. English settlers established a number of Bray Schools throughout the 13 colonies; Benjamin Franklin himself suggested that officials open the recently rediscovered one in Williamsburg.

A white woman named Ann Wager was the Bray School’s sole instructor. She taught students how to read and write, in addition to leading lessons on needlework and embroidery for young girls, according to the official Colonial Williamsburg website. Students, about 90 percent of whom were enslaved, ranged in age from 3 to 10 years old. By the time the school closed in 1774, it had enrolled around 400 pupils.

As the Times points out, the 260-year-old building dates to a time when Williamsburg’s population was more than 50 percent African American. Teaching enslaved people to read was still legal, but by the 1800s, Virginia had practically barred enslaved people from becoming literate. Those who broke the law faced up to 20 lashes with a whip, reports the Post.

Bray School Event

The Bray School’s primary goal was to convert and indoctrinate enslaved African Americans.

“Christianizing people was used as a way of controlling them to making sure that they understood their place in society,” historian Jody Lynn Allen—director of the college’s Lemon Project, which seeks to address the wrongs perpetrated against black Americans by William & Mary—tells the Washington Post. “The purpose of the school was a way to teach them and to establish within them an understanding of their status.”

Despite the insidious agenda underlying the school’s establishment, the skills that students learned—particularly reading and writing—may have helped some enslaved individuals forge fake passes and escape to freedom, per the Pilot. Others may have used their newly acquired education to think critically about politics and government.

“[T]here has always been in the Black community, just an overwhelming thirst, an interest and desire to be educated, and so that’s part of what I hope people learn when they visit,” Meyers tells the Post. “I also think, being a teacher myself, that almost all teaching, all education is to some degree subversive. It makes people start to think; it gives them a kind of independence.”

William & Mary and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation plan to renovate the cottage and relocate it to the living-history museum’s grounds. The organizations will also establish the joint Williamsburg Bray School Initiative, which will use the historic building “as a focal point for research, scholarship and dialogue regarding the interconnected, often troubled, legacy of race, religion and education in Williamsburg and in America,” according to the statement.

Officials expect the restored building to open to the public in 2024.

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