Spring 2021 Issue

Bray School Uncovered

Colonial Williamsburg joins William & Mary to research, relocate and interpret 18th-century Bray School for enslaved and free Black children

By Joseph McClain

A small white building that sits tucked away on the William & Mary campus once held an 18th-century school dedicated to the religious education of enslaved and free Black children, researchers have determined.

Now, the university and its neighbor, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, are working together to ensure future generations learn about the history of the building and the stories of those who were part of it.

William & Mary and Colonial Williamsburg have forged a partnership regarding the future use of the building, now known as the Bray-Digges House, likely the oldest extant building in the U.S. dedicated to the education of Black children. The agreement calls for relocation of the structure to Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area, where it would become the 89th original structure restored by the foundation.

No date has been set for the relocation of the Bray-Digges building, and Colonial Williamsburg and William & Mary are considering a number of potential sites. The building has been known as Prince George House and most recently used as offices for William & Mary’s Department of Military Science, which has been relocated.

Working together: Virginia historical marker W-109 was unveiled at the original site of the Bray School in March 2019.

Research conducted in 2020 by Colonial Williamsburg connected the final dots in a decades-long trail of evidence begun by Terry Meyers, Chancellor Professor of English, emeritus. The work, focused on dendrochronology of the building’s timber framing, further corroborated research indicating that the building at 524 Prince George Street in Williamsburg once held the Bray School, an institution that educated many of the town’s Black children from 1760 to 1774. The school was housed in the building from 1760 to 1765.

The compelling story of a historic building’s emergence from obscurity was announced at an event on Feb. 25 featuring remarks by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam.

“It is hard to overstate the importance of this discovery, of the robust history that will be uncovered through this partnership between William & Mary and Colonial Williamsburg,” says W&M President Katherine A. Rowe. “So much of our history as a nation has gone unrecorded — the history of African Americans, their oppression and resistance. By studying the legacy of the Bray School students, we will uncover and illuminate some of the most important impacts of education in the story of America.”

Both partners are generating private financial support for the Williamsburg Bray School Initiative.

Cliff Fleet ’91, M.A. ’93, J.D. ’95, M.B.A. ’95, president and CEO of Colonial Williamsburg, says the project is a critical step toward fostering a broader understanding of Americans’ shared history.

“Colonial Williamsburg and William & Mary’s partnership to research, restore and interpret the original structure of the Bray School is critical to our ongoing work to uncover our common past and expand our understanding of America’s founding,” says Fleet.

A Virginia Department of Historic Resources marker commemorating the school was unveiled at Brown Hall in early 2019. Rowe notes that the new joint venture aligns with other William & Mary initiatives that address the institution’s historical involvement with slavery, including the Lemon Project, a scholarly and educational initiative that investigates slavery and its legacies at W&M.

“When we talk about the history of slavery and the history of the African American experience at William & Mary, we include the Bray School,” says Jody Allen Ph.D. ’07, the Robert Francis Engs Director of the Lemon Project. “We believe the Bray School not only impacted the children who actually attended the school, but it impacted their descendants. We believe very strongly that they went on to share their knowledge with brothers, sisters, neighbors.”

Nicole Brown ’13, a graduate student in William & Mary’s American Studies Program, is also a Colonial Williamsburg actor-interpreter portraying Ann Wager, a white teacher at the Williamsburg Bray School. She is currently studying the history and impact of the Bray Schools in Williamsburg and beyond. A London organization, the Associates of Dr. Bray, established similar “Bray Schools” in other locations throughout the New World.

Existing records of the Williamsburg Bray School indicate that the student body was about 90% enslaved, with the remainder being free children of color. Ages ranged from 3 to 10 years old, usually equally divided among boys and girls, and the enrollment was around 30.

Another scholar of the Bray School’s history is Julie Richter M.A. ’85, M.A. ’89, Ph.D. ’92, a lecturer in William & Mary’s Department of History and the director of the National Institute of American History & Democracy (NIAHD), itself a partnership of William & Mary and Colonial Williamsburg. She has done research into the students at the Bray School. Known records are far from complete, she says.

Each of the students of the Bray School was taught to read and possibly to write as well as elements of “deportment,” while girls received needlework lessons, all in the furtherance of a Christian education.

Brown and Richter say slaveowners had varied motivations for enrolling enslaved children in the Bray School. A demonstrated degree of numeracy and literacy increased the auction value of any enslaved individual, while Brown pointed out that a Bray School education increased a person’s usefulness to a slaveowner, especially one who operated a commercial establishment.

“Education is almost invariably subversive,” Meyers says. Like Allen and Brown, he notes evidence that Bray School students took their literacy skills home and spread them around.

“If you are taught to read the Bible,” he says, “you will be able to read other things. Once you educate people, they are better equipped to think critically.”