Stories & Structure: The History of Black Education at the Williamsburg Bray School
Within these walls. An often-repeated phrase embodying the reverence held for historic buildings. Three words that hold a wealth of meaning, centered on how these buildings are living containers of the past, with secrets that sometimes take years to identify.
The history, discovery, and future of the Williamsburg Bray School in Virginia is one example of a building that kept its secrets close, until early 2020 when everything changed.
Opened on September 29, 1760, the Bray School served as an educational institution for enslaved and free Black children. For fourteen years, the school’s only teacher, a white woman named Ann Wager, taught an estimated 300-400 students. The students ranged from ages 3-10 and were a balance of girls and boys—as was required by the school’s trustees. In the years it was in operation, Wager would teach as many students as possible using a faith-based curriculum that justified slavery, and yet, the “practice of literacy seeded agency.”
For the Director of the Bray School Lab at William & Mary—which is conducting documentary and genealogical research on the school—Dr. Maureen Elgersman Lee, this seeding is what makes understanding this facility so important. It was within these walls where, she says, “there [was] an interesting experiment in equity—with an asterisk of course—because when students entered, they were all called scholars, regardless of status. This created an interesting ethos, that even while the school protected slavery, it also created this learning space.”
Until recently, the original Bray School building was thought to not exist, an assumption which hinged on a single letter written by trustee Robert Carter Nicholas, who wrote to the Associates of Dr. Bray—the English group that had funded the school—describing the building as “untenantable.” For years, this phrase convinced researchers that the original building for the Bray School, which housed the initial class of students, had been lost.
Today, due to the steady and painstaking work of researchers and historians at William & Mary (W&M) and archaeologists and preservationists at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (CWF), the story of the children of the Bray School is being fully examined as part of the Williamsburg Bray School Initiative.
In 2022 the Mellon Foundation further bolstered the Initiative with a $5 million investment as part of their Monuments Project. For both institutions it all comes down to, as Elgersman Lee says, “stories and structure.”
Identifying the Structure
In the early 2000s Dr. Terry Meyers, now Chancellor Professor Emeritus of English at W&M, followed his deep interest in history to the identification of a structure that had been moved in 1930 from Williamsburg onto the university’s campus a few blocks away. His subsequent archival research tentatively identified the building as the original schoolhouse.
However, making that identification based on documentary evidence and proving it were two different things. The initial attempts at using tree rings to date the structure proved to be a challenge, because the trees used for the rafter beams did not match the patterns usually found in the region.
Matt Webster, executive director, architectural preservation and research at CWF, says, “As architectural historians it is always imperative that you always continue to push for accuracy, push for understanding the past. Our job is to really ask why, and to question ourselves continuously.”
Webster credits W&M’s willingness and commitment to identifying the building that led to an agreement to do more testing in early 2020. He says, “No one could definitively say that this building was the Bray School, and through a partnership with William & Mary we were able to go in and do what is known as invasive investigation. We cut some holes in the plaster work so we could find the original frame, and I will say the second we saw the frame we knew that we were dealing with something special.”
He continues, “Sometimes you get lucky, and you are there at the right place, and the right time to get this answer.” The four samples the team pulled clearly showed that the frame of the structure was built using wood from the winter of 1759 to the spring of 1760—fully locking in that this structure was the Bray School.
Webster emphazies, “The first lesson we learned from the building was that it would reveal its secrets rapidly and with great detail…we’ve become really spoiled, the story is just pouring out.” Not only was this the site of the school, but it was also a great vernacular example of an 18th-century tenement, the style of housing that most residents in the area lived in.
With new information in hand, the letter from Nicholas took on a whole new meaning. Written in February 1769, the trustee was merely stating that the current structure could no longer hold the number of students required, precipitating the school’s move to a new building.
It is this ability to simultaneously leverage the architectural work with a fresh and expanded examination of the documentary evidence that makes the Williamsburg Bray School Initiative unique.
Weaving in the Stories: The Bray School Lab
While a collaborative partnership between CWF and W&M existed in relation to the Bray School for years, it wasn’t until October 2021 that the newest component, the Bray School Lab (the Lab), was formally announced. A key part of the broader Williamsburg Bray School Initiative, the Lab’s purpose is to serve as the research and documentary arm of the project, aspiring to “transform traditional accounts of America’s history into a multi-layered story that centers Black legacy at the heart of U.S. democracy.”
Much of the work related to the Lab is thanks to the work of two women, Director of the Bray School Lab Dr. Maureen Elgersman Lee and Bray School Lab Assistant Nicole Brown.
Together these two historians are facilitating—with deep community and W&M student involvement—a series of public-facing projects intended to expand the research into the stories of the scholars, teacher, and descendants of the Bray School.
The first project that the Lab is involved with is the Student Histories Project, focused on the legacy and histories of the scholars and their descendants. This involves not only expanding the pool of primary source documentation, but also using the three known lists of scholars—from 1762, 1765, and 1769—to identify the full stories of the free and enslaved children who attended the institution.
A critical part of this work is centering the scholars first in the research, which includes developing documentation that opens avenues for descendent research and identification. For the list linked above this includes identifying each student's enslaver (a combination of gentry, tradespeople, and tavern keepers, of which almost half were white women) in order to draw familial connections between others who were enslaved at the same household. All this work uses the tenets of the rubric from the National Summit on Teaching Slavery that took place at Montpelier, a National Trust Historic Site, in 2018.
While tracing these scholar’s lines is not easy, identification is a critical piece of this work. To say that, as Elgersman Lee says “for as many students as possible, we know, with as much certainty as we can through documents and oral traditions, who their descendants are. That’s huge, its a daunting task, but some of the most important, and earnest work, that we are committed to doing at the Bray School Lab.”
The second project is the development of an annotated bibliography that looks beyond the records of the Bray School and more broadly at Black education from the 18th century through today. The final focus, the Bray School Records Project, involves the transcription, digitization, and creation of all the physical correspondence between Dr. Bray and his associates, who built schools not just in Williamsburg but across the United States and the Caribbean.
While the work is just beginning, Elgersman Lee, Brown, and Webster all agree, as Webster says, “that [this partnership] is a great part of this work, because there is always the fear of one piece outrunning the other and the fear that you might miss evidence because of that. All of these parts moving forward at the same time is really, really important.”
Unraveling the Full Story
This partnership between CWF and W&M prioritizing the structure and story of the Bray School, coupled with transformational funding from the Mellon Foundation, provides an opportunity unlike any other. As of today, in fall 2022, architectural investigations are being completed and moving into the stabilization phase. Next year the building, now known as the Bray-Digges House (after the family that owned the building), will be moved into Colonial Williamsburg where it will be readied for public interpretation in time for the anniversary of the school fully closing in 1774.
In doing this work Webster sees “the power of education. Once a person is educated you can’t control what they do with that education. It is incredibly important to who we all are and who we can be. [Our] goal is to represent history accurately, to represent these individuals in the best way we possibly can. The need to [preserve the Bray School] accurately.”
For Brown, who has spent nearly five years portraying Ann Wager in Colonial Williamsburg, a discovery that always forces her to take a breath is “finding the family members of students who were previously only identified as a name on the Bray School list.” After the structure is moved, she will continue to serve as the Bray School Lab assistant, while also liaising between W&M and CWF as the Foundation’s Manager of Core Programming where she hopes to do justice to the scholars of the Bray School.
It is one of those lists, one with the ages of the children, that serves as a “rock in this work” for Elgersman Lee. She says, “It helps me remember that we are talking about children, particularly those younger children. And I think about the spirit and innocence of children in the context of slavery, and I think about the education…[and] I hope that there were echoes of laughter, even as they were thought of as chattel.”
Those echoes remain just waiting within the walls of the Bray School, ready to be shared.
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