The founding of the Williamsburg Bray School also stands against the backdrop of slave sales, runaways and executions of Blacks, both enslaved and free, in Virginia’s early capital.
The Virginia Gazette provides valuable local context for the Bray School’s first days and first students. At its most basic, slavery made Blacks part of the marketplace, to be bought and sold. Because they had legal status as chattel — personal, movable property — enslaved Blacks were part of estate inventories passed to heirs or could go to auction when their owners died. They could also be sold for debts or for quick access to capital.
William Byrd III advertised one such large-scale slave and land auction in the Virginia Gazette in January 1761. Byrd was a lawyer and planter who inherited one of Virginia’s largest plantations when his father died in 1744. Byrd’s various vices, including gambling, eventually forced him to auction off a considerable portion of his more than 179,000 acres of land and extensive chattel property:
ON Tuesday, February 3d, will be sold to the highest Bidders...about FIVE HUNDRED SLAVES, belonging to the Hon. William Byrd, Esquire; among which are Tradesmen of all Sorts; with a vast Quantity of Stock.... To be sold likewise, about THIRTY THOUSAND ACRES of fine LAND.
In addition to sales and appeals for the return of Black freedom seekers, some of the even darker aspects of the color line played out on the pages of the Virginia Gazette. On Nov. 30, 1759, it reported:
This Day Caeser Valentine, a free Negro, who was condemned at the last General-Court for Felony, was executed at the Gallows near this City, pursuant to his Sentence.
The Gazette did not indicate the nature of Valentine’s crime, but he was likely convicted of an offense such as murder, rape, arson, treason or serious threat. While some Virginia slaveholders successfully petitioned for compensation when their slaves were executed, Valentine’s status as a free man meant that no one could claim property rights in him.