Ornamental Separator

‘This was the Bray School’

Discovering the 18th-century school for Black children and the meaning of the education provided there

the proof

Matt Webster remembers the exact minute it became clear to him that the building on Prince George Street that he and his colleagues were studying had once been the home of Williamsburg’s Bray School. That meant it is likely the oldest existing building in England’s North American colonies where Black children, enslaved and free, were formally educated.

“It was 8:06 p.m. on June 22,” recalled Webster, executive director of Colonial Williamsburg’s Grainger Department of Architectural Preservation and Research. “My neighbors must have wondered what was going on because I was on my front porch and I very excitedly got on the phone with Ron Hurst.”

“We were on the edge of our seats waiting for the results of the dendrochronology,” said Hurst, Colonial Williamsburg’s vice president for Museums, Preservation and Historic Resources. “A call from Matt on a Saturday night had to be good news!”

Webster had indeed received the results of dendrochronology — which dates buildings by studying tree rings — conducted on samples taken from the building on Prince George Street. The results indicated that the sample wood had come from trees that had been cut down in winter 1759 or spring 1760.

These were remarkably precise dates, findings made possible because researchers had been able to take samples from the outside edges of logs, which showed the newest growth rings. And the dates matched precisely with documentary evidence that the Williamsburg Bray School had opened in September 1760.

“We now not only knew that this was the Bray School,” Webster said, “but now we seemingly had a building whose first use had been as a school.”

Earlier studies of the building suggested it had probably been built in the late 18th or early 19th century. Previous dendrochronology, based on wood taken from exposed framing in the attic, had failed to determine a date since the lumber had come from trees that had grown faster than normal for the region. Fast-grown lumber was typically used toward the end of the 18th century, suggesting the building had been erected too late to have housed the Bray School. Paint analysis also suggested too late a date. The only early paint layers that could be found contained components that hadn’t been used until the early 19th century.

But Webster and others on his team weren’t convinced. They suspected that parts of this building had been constructed early enough to have housed the Bray School, and they thought that the original building might not have been painted.

In February 2020, Webster crawled under the building and noticed parts of the frame and joists that might be used for new dendrochronology. In June, the building’s owner — William & Mary — gave permission for Colonial Williamsburg researchers to take more samples.

Steve Chabra, an architectural preservation supervisor for the Foundation, removed some siding, and he and Webster could see that the framing, dimensions, construction techniques and materials suggested it was an 18th-century building.

Their focus turned to finding wood with the outside edges of a log, and in mid-June they found four pieces — two posts, a brace and a floor joist. The dendro-chronology, which was conducted by Mick Worthington of the Oxford Tree Ring Laboratory in Maryland, indicated the same date for all four, and three were intact enough to determine a felling season: either the winter of 1759–1760 or the spring of 1760.

“Until then the only thing we could say was this might be the building,” Webster said. “This was compelling evidence.”

the meaning

The findings make the building the 89th original structure in Williamsburg, but its significance goes well beyond that. From 1760 to 1774, in a slaveholding colony, the Williamsburg Bray School educated as many as 400 Black children. The discovery has generated a great deal of media attention.

In a February announcement of the findings, Colonial Williamsburg’s President Cliff Fleet said the Foundation, working with William & Mary and the community, was “collectively committed to doing the work to educate current and future generations about our African American heritage and the complicated history of the Bray School.”

William & Mary President Katherine Rowe, who also spoke at the February event, agreed that it is impossible to overstate the importance of the discovery and that it “will illuminate the stories of the Black students who attended the school and the impact that their education had on our region and our nation.”

The impact of that education is, as Fleet noted, a complicated story. Williamsburg was an unlikely home for African American education. Many slave owners considered the enslaved incapable of learning much, or they feared that an enslaved child who was educated was more likely to find a way to escape.

The school’s ideology was unquestionably pro-slavery. A set of rules drawn up in 1762 directed the teacher to instruct her students “in the Principles of the Christian Religion” and to teach them that “Christians are commanded to be faithful & obedient to their Masters.”

Yet the school called for teaching students to read, and some students surely used that knowledge in ways slave owners feared. Isaac Bee attended the school as a child and later ran away. In 1774, his owner, Lewis Burwell, placed an ad in The Virginia Gazette warning that Bee could read. Gowan Pamphlet, who later preached at Williamsburg’s first Black Baptist church, may have been one of the children whose owner, tavern keeper Jane Vobe, enrolled in the school.

Speakers at the February announcement speculated about how children educated at the Bray School could have used what they learned to undermine slavery, despite the school’s pro-slavery philosophy.

“There are certain attributes of childhood that persist over place and time,” said Jody Allen, the Robert Francis Engs Director of the Lemon Project, which is dedicated to uncovering and addressing William & Mary’s relationship with African Americans throughout its history. “What did you want to do as soon as you got home [from school]? Typically, we wanted to tell someone, anyone who would listen — our parents, our siblings, our dolls, GI Joe — what we had learned that day.

“By teaching others, these children were using tools meant to eliminate their desire for a different earthly life, but they likely used it to subvert the system and to aid others in the transformation and transcendence of their assigned status,” she said.

Rex Ellis, formerly the associate director for curatorial affairs at the National Museum of African American History and Culture and before that a vice president of Colonial Williamsburg, agreed that enslaved children would have used what they learned in subversive ways.

“Yes, it was to spread the gospel. Yes, it taught students the etiquette of the church,” Ellis said of the Bray School. “But it also taught the art of reading and most significant for me, it was a moment, if only a brief moment, that African youngsters were exposed to the possibilities of literacy and learning.”

Ellis called the discovery of the school important not just for Williamsburg but also for America: “At a time when we are losing our moorings as a nation, the potential of a story that shows how the dreams of a few contributed to the values and the understanding of the many is extraordinary, how faith and scholarship and enlightenment mattered at the beginning of who we became as an American nation is immense.”

Terry Meyers, chancellor professor emeritus of English at William & Mary and an expert on the college’s relationship with enslaved people, stressed that “education often has unintended consequences.” According to Meyers, oral tradition holds that three of the free girls enrolled at the school took what they learned back to the community and are known as the first Black teachers in Virginia.

the lead-up

The Bray School took its name from the Rev. Dr. Thomas Bray, a British clergyman dedicated to converting Blacks to the Christian faith. After his death in 1730, an organization known as the Associates of Dr. Bray took on, as part of its mission, educating Black children in the colonies. Benjamin Franklin, who became a member of the Associates in 1760, suggested Williamsburg would be a good site for a school. When Franklin visited Williamsburg in 1756, he found that the clerical faculty at William & Mary were already involved in the religious education of the local Black population and that there was already talk about founding a school. Franklin suggested Thomas Dawson, president of the college, as an overseer of the school for Black children, likely hoping the institutional affiliation would protect it from its many skeptics.

The dendrochronology that identified the Bray building was the culmination of years of work by researchers at both Colonial Williamsburg and William & Mary. It is a collaboration that will continue.

Meyers was the first to suggest that the small white building that then housed the university’s Department of Military Science might once have housed the Bray School. He had read in a local memoir that a small 18th-century cottage had been moved down Prince George Street, but he could not find it. He had almost given up, thinking the structure had likely been destroyed. But he found photos of a structure in Colonial Williamsburg’s John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, and he noticed that if you took away two additions to the house and changed the roofline, it would look like an 18th-century cottage. Meyers persisted in his research and advocacy even when initial studies indicated the building wasn’t old enough to have been the school.

The building was moved from the east side of Boundary Street to farther west on Prince George Street in 1930. Between 2012 and 2014, Colonial Williamsburg archaeologists excavated the original site.

Meyers was “pleased and delighted” when he learned the dendrochronology confirmed what he had suspected all along.

the plans

Both Colonial Williamsburg and William & Mary are committed to making the most of the discovery.

“This site in conjunction with many other locations across the region will be used as a critical and necessary location...for dialogue, research and scholarship regarding the complex yet compelling story of education, race and religion in the formation and development of America,” said Fleet in his announcement.

Before any of that happens, though, there’s more research to be done. Among those delving into the documentary evidence is Nicole Brown, a graduate student in William & Mary’s American Studies program and an actor-interpreter for Colonial Williamsburg who portrays Ann Wager, the Williamsburg Bray School’s white teacher.

“Ann Wager isn’t really the story,” Brown said. “She’s the facilitator. She can serve as a conduit through which to understand the complex and fraught relationship among education, slavery and Christianity in the history of America.”

About 1,000 pages have been transcribed so far, and Brown hopes to learn more as she studies and edits the rest while also developing a graduate thesis that will discuss the Bray Schools in more detail.

There’s also more to be learned from the building itself. Researchers plan first to document all aspects of the building. They’ll start to peel back layers that have been added to the building over the centuries of renovations and upgrades, searching for original materials that remain in place or that were ripped out and reused.

Webster and his team hope their investigations will result in a clearer sense of what the interior of the building looked like, including the schoolroom. Molding and paint from the 18th century have already been spotted. Remains of an earlier floor exist beneath the current one, and the wear patterns on it may reveal which room was the schoolroom. Learning which doors had locks on them may reveal something about the relationship between students and teacher.

Ultimately, they plan to stabilize the building and move it to the Historic Area, though it will remain just a few blocks from the William & Mary campus.

One intriguing aspect of the building is not directly related to its having been the Bray School. Much of what has survived generally in Williamsburg — and elsewhere — belonged to the elite because less wealthy people tended to use cheaper materials and kept using them until they wore out. This building provides an unusual opportunity to study what would have been a more common form of building.

“Here we have a building that likely represents what the vast majority of Virginians were living in,” Webster said. “We’re seeing types of material that definitely would not have been used in the George Wythe House. Our hope is it’s going to reveal a lot of secrets. This is an incredibly important opportunity both to understand the Bray School and to understand Williamsburg in the 18th century.”

Plans to research, relocate, restore and interpret the house are possible thanks to a $400,000 grant from the Gladys and Franklin Clark Foundation.

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