Thursday, November 30, 2023

Researchers rediscover school for black children on William & Mary campus

William & Mary Military Science/Digges House at 524 Prince George St. (WYDaily/Courtesy of William and Mary)

The unassuming, small, white building tucked away on Prince George Street houses a lot more history than was originally thought.

Researchers have determined the building located at 524 Prince George St. once housed the Williamsburg Bray School, an 18th-century institution dedicated to the education of enslaved and free Black children, according to a news release from Colonial Williamsburg and the College of William and Mary.

The building most recently housed offices for William and Mary’s Department of Military Science and is known as the Prince George House on campus.

Dendrochronology analysis of the building’s wood framing conducted in 2020 by Colonial Williamsburg researchers confirmed the structure once housed Williamsburg’s Bray School, an institution that educated many of the town’s Black children from 1760 to 1774.

The Bray School’s mission was to impart Christian education to Black children and for students to accept enslavement as divinely ordained. The school was suggested for establishment in Williamsburg by Benjamin Franklin.

Because of this discovery, the university and Colonial Williamsburg are now working together to relocate the Bray-Digges House to Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area, where it would become the 89th original structure restored by the foundation.

The work to restore and interpret the Bray School’s historic structure is possible thanks to a grant of $400,000 from the Gladys and Franklin Clark Foundation. The grant from the Clark Foundation will allow Colonial Williamsburg to relocate the structure to the Historic Area, and additional funds will be raised to complete the restoration and interpretive work.

Colonial Williamsburg and William & Mary are considering potential sites and have yet to determine a date for the relocation of the Bray-Digges House.

The partnership between the two institutions also establishes the Williamsburg Bray School Initiative, a joint venture of the university and foundation to use the site as a focal point for research, scholarship and dialogue of race, religion and education in Williamsburg and in America.

On top of this discovery, Gov. Northam is scheduled to join the Williamsburg community for a special event today at 5 p.m. to commemorate the history of the Bray School, its rediscovery and plans for site and interpretation.

Due to COVID-19, the event is not open to the general public, but it will be available virtually via livestream at

“It is hard to overstate the importance of this discovery, of the robust history that will be uncovered through this partnership between William & Mary and Colonial Williamsburg,” said William & Mary President Katherine A. Rowe in a statement from a news release.

“So much of our history as a nation has gone unrecorded — the history of African Americans, their oppression, and resistance. By studying the legacy of the Bray School students, we will uncover and illuminate some of the most important impacts of education in the story of America,” Rowe said.

Jody Allen, the Robert Francis Engs Director of the Lemon Project, said the Bray School legacy has long been a part of the Lemon Project’s programming. A few of the Williamsburg Bray School Initiative’s priorities are the identification and engagement of descendants of Bray School scholars.

Allen was also recently appointed by Gov. Ralph Northam to Virginia’s Commission to Study Slavery and Subsequent De Jure and De Facto Racial and Economic Discrimination.

“When we talk about the history of slavery and the history of the African American experience at William & Mary, we include the Bray School,” Allen said in a statement from the news release.

“We believe the Bray School not only impacted the children who actually attended the school, but it impacted their descendants. We believe very strongly that they went on to share their knowledge with brothers, sisters, neighbors,” Allen said.

Story of rediscovery

Julie Richter is a lecturer in William & Mary’s Department of History and the director of the National Institute of American History & Democracy (NIAHD). She said there are surviving student lists from only three years: 1762, 1765 and 1769.

“I’m eternally optimistic that there will be a few more lists that someone will find in time,” Richter said. “But right now, we have these three slices in time to try to tease out what students were at the school and who sent them.”

Nicole Brown, an actor-interpreter and scholar who portrays Ann Wager, the white teacher at the Williamsburg Bray School, is also a graduate student of William & Mary’s American Studies Program. She and Richter said slave owners had varied motivations for enrolling enslaved children.

Literacy and math skills increased the auction value of any enslaved individual, while Brown pointed out that a Bray School education increased a person’s usefulness to the slave owner, in particular one who operated a commercial establishment.

The rediscovery began with Chancellor Professor of English, Emeritus, at William & Mary, Terry Meyers. Meyers was reading a memoir by a local resident when he came across a reference to an 18th-century cottage that in 1930 had been moved down Prince George Street from the corner of Prince George and North Boundary streets.

He visited Colonial Williamsburg’s John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, where there was a file on the building.

“From that, I was able to go back and look at what is now 524 Prince George St.,” Meyers said in a statement from the news release. “And I realized that if you look at that structure and erase the two additions on the right and the left and change the roofline from a Dutch colonial roof to a proper cottage roof, you actually do have an 18th-century cottage.”

Researchers led by Colonial Williamsburg’s Executive Director of Architectural Preservation and Research, Matt Webster, discovered the reconfigured roof line Meyers had noted and a window sash dating back to the original construction date.

“Our analysis of the structure’s oldest elements conclusively places the timber’s harvest between the winter of 1759-60 and the spring of 1760, with the establishment of the Williamsburg Bray School in 1760,” Webster said.

“That, combined with existing evidence of the Bray School’s historical location on Prince George Street, makes a compelling case that this is the original structure, and the building still has a great deal more to teach us,” he added.

Meyers found that the Bray School operated in the Digges building from its 1760 founding until 1765, when the school was moved, possibly out to Capitol Landing Road.

Meyers noted that “education is almost invariably subversive.” Like Allen, he said there is evidence that students at the Bray School took their literacy skills back home and spread them around.

“If you are taught to read the Bible,” Meyers said. “you will be able to read other things. Once you educate people, they are better equipped to think critically.”



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