University Finds 18th-Century Schoolhouse Where Black Children Learned to ReadHistorians in the News
tags: slavery, historic preservation, African American history, Virginia, education history, William & Mary
For years, academics and researchers at William & Mary, a university in Virginia, had known about the Bray School, where Black children, free and enslaved, were taught to read from 1760 to 1774. But no one had ever found the school.
Until last year, that is. In June, workers tore open the walls of what had been believed to be an early-20th-century building on campus and found timber that had been harvested in 1759.
The small, four-room school had been hiding in plain sight, inside William & Mary’s military science department.
“As a historian, I always believe that there is a box unopened, that there is a closet that hasn’t been looked into,” said Jody Lynn Allen, a history professor at William & Mary and director of the Lemon Project, which was created in 2009 to research the college’s legacy of slavery. “We always are hoping for clues to find something like this.”
The discovery of a 260-year-old structure with such a deep connection to a little-known chapter of the history of Colonial Williamsburg, when the population was more than 50 percent Black and teaching slaves to read was legal, is especially significant, she said.
“It’s amazing,” Professor Allen said. “What a find.”
Gov. Ralph S. Northam of Virginia visited the school on Thursday to commemorate the discovery of the building, which was reported by The Washington Post. The college and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation plan to restore the building and relocate it near its original site on Prince George Street.
They expect to open it to the public in 2024, the 250th anniversary of the school’s closure, said Ronald L. Hurst, the foundation’s vice president for museums, preservation and historic resources. He led a team of researchers who investigated the building last summer.
The discovery of the building can be traced to at least 2004, when Terry L. Meyers, emeritus chancellor professor of English at the college, found a memoir by a Williamsburg resident who described an 18th-century cottage that had been relocated down the block around 1930.
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