Ornamental Separator

Learning About the School

Research is challenging the assumptions about the building that housed the Bray School

The building that housed the Bray School, it turns out, was very different from what researchers might have assumed.

The 18th-century school for Black children was, to be sure, housed in the small white building now located on Prince George Street near William & Mary. Dendrochronology — which dates buildings by tree rings — confirmed the building’s age. The process indicated that wood used in the building’s construction came from trees cut down months before the school opened in September 1760. The national attention that followed the discovery of the Bray School focused on the structure being the oldest existing building in Britain’s North American colonies where Black children, enslaved and free, were formally educated.

But with the discovery came assumptions.

“Biases and interpretations often shape historical thinking,” said Matt Webster, executive director of Colonial Williamsburg’s Grainger Department of Architectural Preservation and Research. “The building itself doesn’t have a bias.”

Continuing research into the construction of the building has upended assumptions about the Bray School. Until recently, most scholars assumed the original building was cheaply, if not shoddily, constructed. The slaveholders who supported the school, they surmised, seemed unlikely to care about high-quality construction. In fact, in 1769, Robert Carter Nicholas, the school’s trustee and later the treasurer of the colony of Virginia, wrote to the Associates of Dr. Bray, the British philanthropic group that funded the school, that the building was “untenantable.”

The building’s 18th-century construction had largely been hidden by additions over time, especially around 1924 when the Methodist Women’s Association converted it into a dormitory for Methodist women students at William & Mary. In November 2021, Steve Chabra, architectural preservation supervisor for the Foundation, started removing 20th-century modifications. To his surprise and delight, he found that all sorts of remnants of the original structure had been reused for the additions.

“They left us a lot of clues that will help us bring the structure back to what it was in the 1760s,” Chabra said. The findings also indicated to researchers that the construction was by no means shoddy.

A Marketable Property

Among the recent discoveries were some fragments of the original building’s chair rails. During the renovation of the house in the 1920s, these pieces of wood had been reused in the construction of a new wall. A cheaply constructed building wouldn’t have had chair rails at all, or any sort of moldings to protect the plaster from furniture.

“Chair rails would have been much fancier in the George Wythe House or the Robert Carter House or the homes of other gentry,” said Jenn Wilkoski, Colonial Williamsburg’s Shirley and Richard Roberts Architectural Historian. “But these were nice enough for a marketable rental property.”

Why would the pro-slavery trustees of the Bray School pay for such niceties? Wilkoski speculated that the house wasn’t built to be a school. It just happened to have been built — and available — when the school’s trustees were looking for a place to rent in 1760.

Other surviving pieces of the original building also indicate it wasn’t low quality. Normally, when a building is moved, as was this one in the late 1920s, its chimneys are destroyed since it’s easier to build a new chimney than to move one. In this case, a chimney that was situated between two wings went with the house. And the chimney bricks are set in an attractive Flemish bond pattern and decorated with glazed brick.

Another marketable feature was the building’s central passage, which wouldn’t have been included in lesser buildings. Central passages had long been included in gentry homes, and by the 1760s they were becoming more common in those of the middling class.

“It’s not a bad building at all,” Webster said. “There’s a hierarchy of space and nice details, and we see no sign of poor conditions like a roof leak.”

Why, then, did Nicholas complain about the building as “untenantable”? Despite its quality, the building was very small for 30 children and for a teacher to live there. “His letter was referencing the space, not the conditions,” Webster explained. Nicholas’ complaint was part of a dispute with the Bray School over the increased rent at a new and larger property.

The research will inform the building’s restoration as the Foundation moves toward opening it to the public in 2024. Instead of having to guess what the building’s windows looked like, researchers can match a surviving window sash. They can study the chimney to determine what the brickwork on the house looked like and even what color the mortar was. And instead of copying other houses’ rooflines, they can see the remains of this one’s in a surviving partition wall.

Occasionally, researchers step back from all their new discoveries and just imagine what went on at this house. Chabra pointed to a newel post at the base of the staircase.

“It’s not the most beautiful piece of wood,” he said, “but almost every person who has been in the building, from the Black students in the 18th century to the William & Mary students in the 20th century, has rubbed their hands on this.”

A Standard Type of House

The research has not only changed the understanding of the Bray School but also enhanced insight into other middling homes from the 18th century. Colonial Williamsburg is known for its restoration and preservation of gentry homes, but the 18th-century city included many simpler homes, few of which still stand. Nicholson Street would have been filled with structures like the one that housed the Bray School.

“This was a much more standard type of house in Williamsburg at the time,” Wilkoski said.

It survived, at least in part, because of luck. Located away from the center of town, it wasn’t in anyone’s way, either in the 18th century or the 20th. It may also have been left intact because it was thought, mistakenly as it turned out, to have belonged to Dudley Digges, a prominent Yorktown citizen who moved to Williamsburg after the Revolution. (The house was in fact lived in by another branch of the Digges family.)

In the late 1920s, when the college needed a larger dormitory for women, the Methodist Women’s Association offered the building to Colonial Williamsburg, but at the time researchers had no interest in it. Fortunately, William & Mary decided to take the building, move it down the street and use it for a variety of purposes, including at first as housing for professors and most recently as a home for its military science department and ROTC.

As a result, the house still stands, and researchers can continue to uncover its secrets.

“There’s still a lot to learn,” Webster said. “But as we remove the layers of the house, we are finding answers every day.”

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