In a town as old as Williamsburg, Virginia, sometimes history is hiding in plain sight.
That was the case for the Bray School, tucked away on the campus of the William & Mary. The little white building had once been a women’s dormitory, but now it is the oldest known structure still standing in the northern hemisphere that housed a school dedicated to the education of Black children.
William & Mary have partnered with Colonial Williamsburg to relocate and restore the Bray School building to its former glory. Over 200 years after the first Black students walked through its doors, the Bray School’s resurrection will teach a new generation a more complete history, one that includes the lived experiences of the Black community in Williamsburg.
“[The Bray School] disrupts the long-held narrative that slavery and education did not coexist,” said Dr. Maureen Elgersman Lee, Mellon Engagement Coordinator for African American Heritage and Culture at William & Mary. This disruption, she said, “helps contextualize the post-American revolution, when we see enslaved African Americans that we know knew how to read and write forge their own passes and escape.”
Elgersman Lee has been named the director of the William & Mary Bray School Lab, which will work in conjunction with the university and Colonial Williamsburg to create learning opportunities for visitors to the 18th century living museum. The Bray School Lab will perform deep dives into the history surrounding the Bray School, its impact on the children it served, and open the door to discovery and scholarship that can help change the way American history is written.
The Bray School was the creation Dr. Thomas Bray, an Anglican man born in the 17th century who believed in educating Black and Native children in literacy and Christianity.
“It wasn’t this altruistic, warm, fuzzy feeling that people want to get, like, ‘Aw, they taught [Black children,]’” said Dr. Jody Lynn Allen, an assistant professor of history at William & Mary. In fact, the Bray School’s pedagogy specifically worked to reinforce the barriers of society. The school taught Black students that God had ordained them for enslavement, and that serving placidly was part of God’s order.
“The school was set up as a method of control and Christianizing these folks so that they would learn their place,” said Allen. “But [the students] took it and ran with it. They made it theirs. This notion that [the Bray School] was going to train up and maintain this easily controlled group of people was not successful.”
Allen is the director of The Lemon Project at William & Mary, which is dedicated to unveiling the long-shrouded history of slavery at the institution, which at one time owned at least 21 people. One of those enslaved persons was named Lemon.
Two children born into chattel slavery at William & Mary were sent to Bray for an education; their names were Adam and Fanny. While there, they were taught how to read, how to sew, and possibly how to write. They took that knowledge back with them into their community.
“We’re finding that some Bray School students became early Black teachers, even if clandestine, because they were sharing their knowledge,” said Allen.
Adam and Fanny’s records were discovered by Dr. Terry L. Meyers, an English professor at William & Mary since 1970, for whom finding the lost Bray School became a forty-year long obsession.
Discovering the records for Adam and Fanny was “an electric moment.," said Meyers. "It really brought it home that I worked for an institution that once enslaved people.”
“I should have known that, in the sense that we were an old public Southern school, but no one talked about it, and it wasn’t mentioned, really, in our histories,” continued Meyers.
For almost a century, the cottage stood on Prince George St. and garnered little attention, save for a mistaken belief that it might have originally belonged to a revolutionary war hero. Though Meyers had passed the building many times before, he did not suspect that it could be an 18th century house in hiding. That changed when he visited the John D. Rockefeller Library in Colonial Williamsburg and discovered pictures of the little white house without one of its 20th century additions.
Through dedicated trial and error, and multiple dendrochronology tests, which establish the year a piece of timber was harvested for use, the original build date was eventually proved to be in the fall of 1759 and spring of 1760. The Bray School was opened in September 1760.
Ronald Hurst, vice president for museums, preservation and historical resources and chief curator at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, recalled “whooping and hollering” on the phone when the finding was confirmed.
Matthew Webster was the man on the other end of the line, celebrating just as loudly as Hurst. Webster, executive director of architectural preservation and research at Colonial Williamsburg, spoke with excitement about the early historical findings the archaeological team has already made at the Bray School, and all the findings yet to come.
“It’s giving us this new view, which will play into the interpretation of this site moving forward and our understanding of race, in the 18th century but also as it evolves over time,” said Webster. “There’s free children of color at this school, three in 1761. When we read the letters, some of the slave owners basically said, ‘I sent this child to school, but the child isn’t doing what I thought they were going to do with this education.’ Once a person is educated, you can’t control what they do with that.”
The cottage will be moved from the William & Mary campus to a new location in Colonial Williamsburg, just a few blocks from its original home in the 18th century. It will be adjacent to the site of The First Baptist Church, which was built by and for the Black community in Williamsburg. It is still a functioning congregation today.
“So much of what we talk about with race is the enslavement of others by white, but these two sites let us look at the Black community on its own and not being directed by others,” said Hurst. “We have a lot left to learn, but the potential is very exciting and illuminating.”
The Bray School closed in 1774 when its teacher, Ann Wager, died. By that time, it had educated at least 300 students.
“Our belief at this point is that you can’t put the genie back into the bottle. You have to believe that those children shared that knowledge with their families, who then shared it with others,” said Hurst. “It must have contributed to the search for freedom. We’re anxious to know what this experience did for the enslaved community.”
Hurst has been preserving history in Williamsburg for almost forty years. He hopes that the Bray school will help change “the image that most people have in their minds, [that Black education] was always illegal,” said Hurst. “[Bray] shows us there was a period before where it was not. We have lists of the students, which is astounding. We have with the help of the community, already begun to identify the descendants who still live in Williamsburg.”
Once settled in Colonial Williamsburg, the building will then begin the long and careful journey towards restoration. Archeology teams from William & Mary and Colonial Williamsburg will take down the additions added on during the 1920s, ensuring they save every piece of wood that may have been repurposed from its original placement in the 18th century.
The discovery of the Bray house, said Allen, can help people understand the full extent of the daily interactions between white and Black people in colonial times. While unequal, society was not segregated, and Black and white people intermingled in their day to day lives.
“People are just starting to hear that during this time, up until after the Civil War, the majority of people in Williamsburg were Black people, free or enslaved,” said Allen. “That’s important to understand because the whitewashing has removed them from the story. And when you remove them from the story, you don’t have the story.”
Elgersman Lee hopes that The Bray School Lab will not only help connect Americans to their past but help connect the diaspora. The lab, she said, will become a place of historical, educational, and cultural discovery and dissemination, bringing undergraduate, graduate, post docs, faculty, alumni, community stakeholders and Bray School descendants together to unearth the full history of colonial America.
Liann Herder can be reached at [email protected].