America's Oldest Standing Black School House Found in Williamsburg


Ms. Hart is an award-winning journalist who has covered international affairs and historical topics in her writing.

In a series of discoveries unfolding over seven years, a professor of English at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia has uncovered evidence for what may have be the country’s oldest standing school house for African Americans.  Professor Terry Meyers had a longstanding interest in the forgotten history of Virginia’s colonial capital when he began investigating the founding of the Bray School for the education of blacks, enslaved and free.  Clues eventually led him to a small house on Prince George Street near the heart of the city center and skirting the edge of the William and Mary campus.  Opened in 1760, fifteen years before the American Revolution, the school was backed by Benjamin Franklin and William and Mary’s presidents and professors, at the time almost all Anglican clergy.  Professor Meyers’s one-man search began in 2004 and led to the discovery of the building now believed to house the school.  But questions remain about the historical identity of the property, which was also relocated and renovated, making it virtually unrecognizable from the outside.  Today the building houses William and Mary’s Military Science Department and Army ROTC training rooms.

Meyers is now working towards assembling a team of archeologists and historians to determine conclusively whether this is the original structure of the school.  Meyers’s research also helped to launch William and Mary’s Lemon Project, an ongoing investigation into how the college used and owned slaves in the revolutionary and pre-Civil War periods.  Meyers is the author of “Benjamin Franklin, the College of William and Mary, and the Williamsburg Bray School” (Anglican and Episcopal History, December 2010) and “A First Look At the Worst: Slavery and Race Relations at the College of William and Mary” (William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal, Vol. 16, 2008).  Professor Meyers recently spoke with award-winning journalist Priscilla Hart about the Bray House investigation.

Discovering what may be the oldest black school in America is exciting news.  It has obvious symbolism for all Americans and for American history.  When you began your research in 2004, it was widely believed that Williamsburg’s colonial center had been fully restored, with 88 eighteenth-century buildings reclaimed.  Now you have uncovered what seems to be America’s earliest standing schoolhouse for blacks—another eighteenth-century building, hidden under nineteenth- and twentieth-century additions.  Can you summarize the story that led to your discovery of the “Bray School for Negroe Children”?

I’m a specialist in nineteenth-century English literature and have long been intrigued by the century missing in most writings about Williamsburgthat very nineteenth century itself.  The era of the nineteenth century in Williamsburg is not well known at all, largely done away with when Williamsburg was restored in the 1930s as Virginia’s eighteenth-century colonial capital.  I read materials and memoirs having to do with Williamsburg between about 1800 and 1950 and came acrossa memoir by a man who wrote about growing up here in the 1920s and 1930s.  He mentioned an eighteenth-century building in Williamsburg, the Dudley Digges House, that had been moved onto the William and Mary campus.  I couldn’t identify that, nor could others whom I asked about it.

But after a lot of questions and a lot of help from Colonial Williamsburg historians and librarians, and College librarians, too, I tracked the building down. It had been moved onto the edge of campus in 1930 to allow for the construction of a dormitory where it had previously stood.  We still use the building today.  Everyone in town in those days knew it was built in the eighteenth centuryit was mentioned in newspaper accounts and even some guidebooks of the time.  But almost everyone had forgotten about it.  

As I worked to recovery its history, I learned that there was evidence that it might have housed the Bray School for a five-year span between 1760 and 1765.  The students thereafter met at another location, after this house was determined to be too small.  We actually don’t know where that second location is.  The Bray connection to this particular site is complicated, but the documentary evidence I’ve developed is compelling to a number of experts.  Most of those who have looked at the matter seem to accept as a strong likelihood that the current structure did house the Bray School.

The building has an earlier history as well, including being used in 1748 as a quarantine house during a smallpox outbreak.  I’ve become ever more interested in exploring the Bray House connection, especially after I discovered that the institution where I teach, William and Mary, sent two of the slave children it owned, Adam and Fanny, to the school, though later, in the other, still unknown, location.

When do you think a positive confirmation might be made about the house’s historic identity?

Things are still very nascent, but Colonial Williamsburg and William and Mary experts of all sorts are eager to see this move along and will be deeply involved.  We’re at the stage now where we’re beginning to contemplate next steps, which will surely be a joint undertaking between the College and Colonial Williamsburg.  This would be a project that will involve everything from social and educational history to such disciplines as archeology and material culture.

This summer I will be working with a colleague in the History Department to determine the next steps for examining the structure.  These include research methods such as careful disassembly, looking for evidence such as scraps of horn from horn books, piles of chalk dust, and unusual numbers of pins and needles.  We will want to do archeological research at or as close as possible to the original site.  We will also want to determine where the house might be moved, since it is in an area scheduled for clearing for retail development.  Finally we will consider the best ways to interpret it for the public, assuming everyone is happy with the link to the Bray Schooland some pretty big hitters at Colonial Williamsburg see the evidence to this point as compelling.  I think people were stunned that in this town an eighteenth-century building could be overlooked.

The Bray School opened in 1760 and operated until 1774.  This was the year the school’s mistress Ann Wager died.  What do the records tell us about the fourteen years of the school’s existence?  What type of instruction did the students receive?  Did Franklin visit and keep track of its progress?

We know an extraordinary amount about it, thanks to a documentary edition by John Van Horne of the correspondence of the London charity that saw to the establishment of the school.  The charity was called the Associates of Dr. Bray and was one of a number that the Reverend Thomas Bray set up or inspired to see to the Christian education of heathens. The Bray Associates were particularly interested in the religious education of blacks in the colonies, free and enslaved, and the charge of the school was to teach the children the tenets of Anglican Christianity, which Mrs. Wager did, from the Bible and a variety of texts sent to the school from London.  But the children were also taught general deportment and good behavior and the girls were instructed in sewing and needlecraft.  The children were to be taken in an orderly way to divine services—that would have been in Bruton Church, not too long a walk from the school itself.

The Associates were assiduous in seeking accounts of the school, not just for the expenditure of the funds they provided but also of the numbers of children and the degree of success in their education. They were fortunate to find excellent trustees for the school, especially Robert Carter Nicholas, a powerful official in the Colony’s government, who oversaw it closely and wrote meticulous letters concerning its successes and its difficulties.  The frustrations were that students didn’t always stay as long as they might have benefited from. With enrollment constantly changing, documenting success was not easy.

One measure might not have pleased everyone, by the way. None of the education was intended to question slavery as a system—indeed a well instructed and religious slave would learn of God’s divinely organized hierarchy in which some people were placed by divine will as masters and others as slaves. All would learn to respect that divine order and not rebel against it. Yet some of the black children in the Bray School, according to local black tradition, became “the first black teachers in Virginia,” and took the skills of reading and writing back to members of Williamsburg’s free black community. In the nineteenth century, still according to oral tradition, members of the free black community were then able to use those skills to help forge papers for slaves escaping from further South—they would be put on the boat at Jamestown to make their way to Baltimore.  That would make the Bray School somehow involved in the Underground Railway, at least after its demise. I don’t know of any other evidence of that, but it’s an interesting example of the unintended consequences that education can have.

Ann Wager, hired to run the “Negroe school,” was a private instructor in the homes of prominent Williamsburg citizens before her appointment at the Bray School. What do we know about Anne Wager’s life?

As far as actual life facts, we don’t know as much as we’d like to.  Anne Wager was the widow of a man who had some standing apparently. Their son became a justice of the peace and a member of the House of Burgesses. We know that she was born about 1716, and died in 1774, which would make her about 44 when she took on the Bray School.  We know that she was recruited to be its school mistress by the original Williamsburg trustees of the Bray School, one of whom was the President of the College of William and Mary. Wager had been a highly regarded teacher of white children, including at the plantation of Carter Burwell, a magnificent plantation not far from Williamsburg called Carters Grove.  She had no home of her own in Williamsburg and appears to have been entrusted with a sum and allowed to find and lease a house that would serve both her need for a home and for a school for day students. 

Which house she leased is at the heart of the uncertainty about whether the structure I’ve found did serve as the school. Independently, the question had come up over the decades when the house was thought to no longer exist and Colonial Williamsburg researchers had made the link, as early as a half century ago. But the complexity comes in a document that mentions Mrs. Wager’s leasing the house from a “Colonel Dudley Digges.” There were a surprising number of “Dudley Digges” at the time. Only one was generally known as “Colonel,” from Yorktown, and he seems to have been already liquidating his earlier property in Williamsburg. But we are also learning more about another Williamsburg Digges. He may have been a colonel too. Still, the matter is not yet fully resolved and will need some further attention.

You note that as many as thirty slave and free black students attended the Bray School at any given time and that many Williamsburg citizens placed their black slaves there in the years before the American Revolution. What more do records reveal about the identity of the students who attended the school? Do we know the total number of students enrolled there? And what sources led you to find out about them?

We have several lists of the children. In the Van Horne edition I mentioned, thirty are listed in 1762, with their owners’ names—everyone from the wife of the President of the College to high-ranking individuals involved in the affairs of the Colony of Virginia like Peyton Randolph, John  Randolph, and Robert Carter Nicolas, to more middle class folks. Three of the children, Mary Anne, Mary Jones, and Elisha Jones, are listed simply as “a free negroe” or “free.” In 1769 we have another list of some thirty children, again a list pretty varied by owners’ class. Two of these children, John and Mary Ashby, are described as “free”—I’m told that their parents were local free blacks. These were perhaps the students who became “the first black teachers in Virginia” that I mentioned. There is a William and Mary masters thesis on the Williamsburg Bray School by Jennifer Oast, who was able to follow through on the children and develop more information about them and their subsequent appearances in colonial records.

Benjamin Franklin’s interest in the Williamsburg school was part of a much larger vision by a London-based philanthropy called the Associates of Dr. Bray, which hoped to finance schools for slaves throughout the English colonies. Dr. Bray believed that African slaves and freedmen were as worthy of religious instruction as whites. What can you tell us about Dr. Bray and what one historian has called his “radical Anglican humanitarianism”?

Dr. Thomas Bray (1658-1730) has to go down in history as one of the most successful philanthropic entrepreneurs ever, directly or indirectly responsible for several organizations active in Christian evangelizing especially in the new world, even to being involved in the establishment of the colony of South Carolina.  He was a good friend of James Blair, William and Mary’s first president—both were Commissaries, or representatives, of the Bishop of London, Blair in Virginia and Bray in Maryland, though Bray was actually in Maryland a relatively brief time. But both men took very seriously the Bishop of London’s responsibilities for the Christian instruction of blacks and Indians in the new world. Blair’s great accomplishment was of course the founding of the College of William and Mary, with its charter as in part a kind of Anglican seminary, in part a university for the liberal arts and sciences, and of course in part, through the Brafferton school, a center to educate Indians.  Bray’s accomplishments were through the charities he organized or inspired for Christian education.

You have said that the creation of the Bray School was due to a “complex conjunction of ideas.” Besides propagation of the Christian faith, these could include early modern philanthropic ideas, as well as Enlightenment principles like the educability of man. Ben Franklin was a deist deeply rooted in the Puritan tradition of his parents and also deeply immersed in the Enlightenment. He believed that despite its limitations, institutionalized religion had a civilizing and ethical effect on the commonwealth and the common good, a view not shared by his younger contemporary Thomas Jefferson, for whom religion was a private affair. In 1801, a quarter century after the Bray School closed, President Jefferson was asked to restore the colonial-era house. During its lifetime, was Franklin satisfied with the goals and achievements of the Bray School? Given Franklin’s and Jefferson’s unique personal syntheses of unorthodox Christian, deist, and Enlightenment values, do we know if either regarded the school’s “religious instruction” (in this case in Anglican instruction) with any degree of ambivalence?

Jefferson must have known about the Bray School—he was in Williamsburg in these years as student and then a lawyer and legislator—but as far as I know he made no reference to it, and his views on race and slavery are so complex as to be beyond easy summary. Franklin had been instrumental in the Bray Associates’ sponsoring a school slightly earlier in Philadelphia that he did follow and that he was pleased to hear from his wife was successful. My guess is that his interest was less in doctrinal or sectarian instruction than in the generally positive effects of education of all sorts. He admitted that before he saw the results of the Bray School in Philadelphia he had had prejudices about blacks and their capabilities, but when he examined the students he changed completely, acknowledging that their apprehension, memory, and docility were “in every Respect equal to that of white children.”

The confluence of ideas I mention really had to do both with Franklin’s own generally humanitarian ideas and hopefulness for the good effects of education and more particularly the developing commitment within the Anglican Church in support of Christian education and baptism of heathens. Though the idea of holding fellow Christians as slaves took some effort to come around to, the Church managed it—only one Virginia Anglican clergyman actually thought slavery incompatible with Christianity and even William Fleetwood’s 1711 sermon emphasizing the physical, moral, and spiritual equality of blacks and whites allowed slaves to be baptized without their new status as Christians changing their servitude.

One thing worth stressing perhaps is an extraordinary document written by a Virginia slave in 1723 to the Bishop of London pleading for freedom but pleading at even greater length for religious instruction. It’s a powerful document addressed to the Bishop of London, Edmund Gibson, just at the time Gibson’s appointment became known in Virginia, and Gibson’s interest in the religious education of black was already known.   It can’t be proven that the plea was the direct or sole cause, but the very next year, 1724, the Bishop took steps to inform himself of the state of religious education for blacks and Indians in Virginia, again part of the movement of ideas, men, and events that led towards the Bray School.

Despite the support of a number of Williamsburg political and religious leaders, others voiced their opposition to the school, including the area’s planters. You write that “[e]ven in 1772, a dozen years after the school's founding, its powerful trustee Robert Carter Nicholas, treasurer of the Virginia colony, wrote the Associates… that ‘few of the Inhabitants [in Williamsburg and surroundings] do join me in contributing towards supporting the School. . . . there is far from being a general Disposition to promote its' Success.’” Did this opposition influence the closing of the school in 1774?

No, not that I know of.  By 1774 relations between the mother country and the colonies were getting complicated and that surely had some effect.   But really what ended the school directly was the death of Mrs. Wager. The trustee of the school who had been most active over the years, Robert Carter Nicolas, wrote word of her death to the Associates and assured them that he would have liked to have continued the school but saw little possibility of that, a judgment the Associates acquiesced in.

Other “Bray Schools” opened in the colonies at this time. One opened in Philadelphia two years before Williamsburg’s, also at the instigation of Benjamin Franklin and the Associates of Dr. Bray in London, and others opened in New York (1760), Newport, Rhode Island (1762), and Fredericksburg (1765). Still others were attempted in Chester, Maryland; Edenton, Wilmington and Bath, North Carolina; and Yorktown and Norfolk, Virginia, all of which failed. The Bray Associates also planned to establish schools in Bermuda and the Bahamas. What happened to the successful Bray Schools? Do you consider the Williamsburg school the earliest standing schoolhouse because we have no evidence for physical remains of any other?

Some of the schools you mention opened, but not all and I’m not sure of their individual histories. There’s work there to be done I’m sure of a fascinating sort. The Williamsburg school seems to have been the most successful, probably in part because the Associates sought from the first to link it to the College of William and Mary, which they did, I argue, because Franklin had discovered in 1756 when he received an honorary degree from William and Mary that the College’s presidents and faculty already had a commitment to and track record in the religious education of blacks. That’s something that had been wholly forgotten in the history of the College, something I’m the first to document, astonishingly.

But that track record is certain and I’m sure it influenced Franklin’s otherwise somewhat surprising recommendation of Williamsburg, in the midst of the slave-owning culture of Virginia, as a school for black children.   Anyway, that initial affiliation between the College and the Bray School through its presidents was instrumental in the Bray School’s founding and even its survival, I suspect, though the direct links between the two become hard to track after the first few years of the school’s existence.

There were earlier schools for black religious education than the Wiliamsburg Bray school—three near Williamsburg alone before 1743. These were overseen by William Dawson before he became the College’s second president. He was recommended to become Commissary as well in part because of his devotion to black religious education. And as President of the College he presided one year at 40 evenings of Lenten instruction to a class composed of the College’s own students, white indentured servants, Indians, and blacks, probably both enslaved and free. And long before the Bray School he was looking to establish a charity school for blacks in Williamsburg. But you’re right—I think the structure we’re talking about is the earliest extant building associated with black education. Earlier buildings simply haven’t survived so far as I know. And no one’s brought any complicating evidence to that claim in the several years now that I’ve been looking for it.

When the Bray School opened, there were no overt laws forbidding the education of blacks in the south. This changed in Virginia in 1819, undoing whatever impact religious or revolutionary ideology may have had in promoting black education. After the Bray School closed, and following the period of the Revolution, were any attempts made at reviving black education in Williamsburg or elsewhere?

This is a complicated subject and Colonial Williamsburg had a forum last fall on black literacy that suggested that it was not as rare as many people think. But as for black education in Williamsburg after the Bray School closed, as far as I know such education was not much formalized.  But the area has a long history of free blacks, and the skills of reading and writing are ones that can be taught and learned and surely they were. Oral tradition mentions that some of the children from the Bray School became “the first black teachers in Virginia.” Here at the College one of my colleagues, Louise Kale, just several months ago discovered the account of George Greenhow, the free black janitor and bell-ringer at the College in antebellum years who liked to boast—with a fine sense of irony—that he was the “only Negro ever educated at William and Mary”! A student here had taught him to read and write in return for Mrs. Greenhow’s doing the student’s laundry.

Do you believe the Bray School may some day be officially recognized as part of Williamsburg’s past?

Yes I'm sure it will. Just a question of when and how to finance it, really. My own hope would be to work out with Colonial Williamsburg an agreement whereby they can use the structure to interpret the Bray School, but have the College retain the building not far from its original site, perhaps just north of the Wren Building. That north yard was the site of a lot of slave and black activity at the College for centuries since the kitchen and food prep areas were right there. If that's not possible, then just across Richmond Road at the front of Sorority Court would do well—there's an empty lot there. And both locations would be easy for Colonial Williamsburg and College visitors to find and visit. I'd like to develop an exhibit there to tell the complicated story of slavery and race at the College.

You have called the Bray School project a “bright spot” in the “otherwise dark narrative” of the ownership of slaves by the College of William and Mary. Following the Bray House discovery, William and Mary began its “Lemon Project; A Journey of Reconciliation,” named for a slave at the time of the Revolution who was owned by the college. Other universities have initiated research to bring to light their use and ownership of slaves in the past. What are the most significant finds at William and Mary? When did William and Mary finally abandon owning slaves? On the basis of the Bray School discovery, you argue that “William and Mary appears to be the first college or university in America to concern itself as an institution (through the support of its presidents and faculty and through expending its resources) with the education of blacks, free and enslaved.” In the end, how much “light” does the Bray House offer in the college’s pre-Civil War legacy?

A hard question. William and Mary has a more mixed history with regard to slavery than one might first think. Like virtually all old southern schools, we owned slaves and exploited slave labor, sometimes renting slaves rather than owning them. We never were so wealthy that we owned large numbers at any one time, although we did own a tobacco plantation in the eighteenth century whose very existence is not mentioned in any College history. Slaves did all the hard labor at the College, from building its buildings to feeding and serving its students and faculty. We owned slaves for some 170 years, right up until the Battle of Williamsburg in 1862, after which we were occupied by federal troops for the duration of the War. That raises another question by the way—where we buried our slaves, which we don’t currently know. We were responsible for the burial of those we owned who died, and in the archives there’s at least one receipt for a coffin for a college slave. But where the College’s African burial ground is something we’re just beginning to try to organize to find. Problem is, we have no written records.

Anyway, the College’s great moral blemish in slavery comes not just from owning slaves but from its complicity in articulating the pro-slavery ideology. Some early faculty members, for example, George Wythe and St. George Tucker, had at least at times some reservations about slavery, but in the nineteenth century that was overwhelmed by faculty, especially one of our presidents, Thomas Roderick Dew, who argued that slavery was not a peculiar institution or a necessary evil, but an absolute good. There were a number of these faculty in the antebellum years, including Beverley Tucker, a strong secessionist from early on, and George Holmes. But Dew was the leading figure—among the College’s graduates perhaps second only to Jefferson as a public intellectual, more influential in American society even than Jon Stewart. Dew was an economist and approached slavery in the coldest terms of economics and law to argue that slavery could not be done away with—Virginia was contemplating that about 1831—and indeed should not be done away with, that it was simply an absolute good, the basis of civilization, good for blacks and whites alike. I compare reading him to reading Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” but with no irony behind the words.  It is truly chilling.

I don’t argue that the College’s institutional involvement in the founding of the Bray School makes up for Dew and his cohort, but I think it does complicate a totally bleak depiction of the College’s complicity in slavery. Even understanding that Anglican theology did not challenge slavery and indeed was used to control and stabilize a hierarchy that was cruel in the extreme in its implications and practice, there was at its heart a humane recognition of slaves as fellow human beings, “equally the Workmanship of God, with …[white masters]; endued with the same Faculties and Intellectual Powers; Bodies of the same Flesh and Blood, and Souls, as certainly immortal,” as William Fleetwood preached in 1711.  And of course I tend to think of education of any sort as an absolute good, tending always to encourage thought and then independent and critical thought.

So in what can be a dark narrative of the College’s history, the Bray School and the College’s role in its founding are positive. The fact that that had totally disappeared from the record is I think a fascinating comment on what we as a culture remember and when and why. That we’ve been able to recover that lost memory should remind us, along with other things, how complicated history is and how we need to approach it with some humility and some openness to discovery of things both bad and good. And that I think is the strength of the College’s Lemon Project. We’ll discover other things we’ve forgotten, and some of them will be bad indeed, I’m sure. But some of them may be good, and we need to accept the narrative that shapes itself to us based on that evidence, not simply on myths or suppositions.

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