After years of examining centuries-old writings and digging up artifacts, researchers recently confirmed that an 18th-century building on the College of William & Mary campus was once a school for free and enslaved Black children.
The building in Williamsburg, Virginia, that formerly housed the Bray School is thought to be the oldest building in the US dedicated to the education of Black children – but the lessons students learned there were designed to reinforce slavery, historians said.
Now, William & Mary and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation are relocating and restoring the building together, an effort historians from both institutions hope will fill in a crucial piece of Black history previously missing from studies of the famous settlement.
“[Its discovery] comes at a time when we so desperately need to tell the full history of early America,” said Ronald Hurst, vice president of museums, preservation and historic resources at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. “It’s important that we learn from the things we’ve done right and the things we’ve done horribly wrong.”
The school opened to teach Black children about slavery’s ‘natural order’
The Bray School opened in 1760 to free and enslaved Black children in Williamsburg. The school was established by a group called the Associates of Dr. Bray, an organization that supported the religious education of Black residents of the American colonies (Benjamin Franklin, a member of the Associates, is thought to have suggested the school be built in Williamsburg).
The Bray School’s intention wasn’t to empower the Black children it taught – historians believe its aim was “the reinforcement of what was then believed to be the ‘natural order of things’: Some people are enslaved, some people are free,” Hurst said.
Nicole Brown, a William & Mary graduate student who studies the Bray School, found records of the textbooks used at the school, where around 90% of the students were enslaved, according to records.
“Quite frankly, you learn a lot about the pro-slavery ideology of the school, when you see how many of the books are extremely rooted in systemic racism,” Brown said in a William & Mary release.
Slaveowners sent Black children to the school to increase their “usefulness,” according to the release.
“If you had an enslaved cook that could read, you could just give her a written recipe,” Brown said. “You wouldn’t have to sit and read it out.”
Though the lessons they were taught were “pro-slavery,” and slaveowners’ motivations for sending the children to the school served their own agenda, the Bray School’s teachings had unintended consequences: The children shared what they learned with their families, gradually improving the literacy of the Black population in Williamsburg, Hurst said.
“When you teach someone to read, you open up the world to him or her,” he told CNN. “You make it possible to learn other things, make it possible to communicate without being seen or heard.”
The Bray School met in the building for five years before it moved to other quarters – historians don’t know where – until it closed in 1774, after its only teacher, a White woman named Ann Wager, died.
Historians don’t know whether the school operators were unable to find a replacement for her or revolutionary fever swept up Williamsburg and halted its progress, Hurst said. But in the 19th century, Virginia made it illegal to teach Black residents to read and write, a move Hurst said the state made out of fear that enslaved people could “forge” their way to freedom.
The building was hiding in plain sight
Terry Meyers, a chancellor professor of English emeritus at William & Mary, began searching for the building that formerly housed the Bray School in the early 2000s. But he couldn’t find a building that fit the 18th-century description or the location on campus. He assumed it had been demolished and moved on.
A lingering hunch led him to the Colonial Williamsburg library, where he found newspaper clippings of the building that served as the headquarters for William & Mary’s military science department, or ROTC program. That building, he inferred, must have been renovated and expanded in the early 20th century but retained its 18th century structure. The former Bray School hadn’t been demolished, but moved one block down the street.
The project took on a new level of importance when Meyers found correspondence between the Associates of Dr. Bray in London and the overseers of the Bray School that mentioned the progress of “Adam and Fanny,” two young students at the school who were enslaved by the college where Meyers now works.
“All of a sudden, these children had a name and became very palpable to me,” he told CNN.
And his research became all the more urgent. In 2013, archaeologists and students got permission to dig at the original site of the Bray School and found clay marbles, sewing bobs, doll-like toys and an “incredible concentration” of slate pencils, which suggested that the students had not only been taught to read, but to write, Meyers said, though he’s still skeptical the children learned to write.
It wasn’t until recently, though, that the researchers from WIlliam & Mary and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation removed some of the siding from the military sciences building in an attempt to prove their hypothesis.
Beneath the newer layers, they found lumber that looked like it had been “hastily and inexpensively” constructed. They dated a sample of the timber and found it had been felled in either late 1759 or early 1760, which would’ve been months before the school had opened, Hurst said.
This was the strongest evidence yet that this building had once been the Bray School.
Restoring it could finally highlight Black residents of Williamsburg
On Thursday, the college and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation announced the Williamsburg Bray School Initiative, a joint effort that will move the building, now known as the Bray-Digges House, to the Colonial Williamsburg historic area.
There, it’ll be used as a “focal point for research, scholarship and dialogue regarding the interconnected, often troubled, legacy of race, religion and education in Williamsburg,” the university said in a news release.
The restoration of the Bray School is the latest initiative both institutions are taking to examine Black history within Williamsburg. William & Mary started The Lemon Project, the aim of which is to uncover the college’s participation in slavery and the legacy of White supremacy that still resonates there. And the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation recently conducted an archaeological dig at the site of what historians believe could be the original First Baptist Church, one of the oldest historically Black churches in the US, Hurst said.
Meyers said the study of Colonial Williamsburg has largely erased free and enslaved Black residents, even though they likely made up around half of the city’s population during that time. The Bray School’s restoration, he said, is a consequential step at telling a fuller history of Williamsburg – one that acknowledges how its racist past informs its present.