For historians and descendants, the Bray School contradicts the belief that all enslaved Americans were uneducated.
WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — A building believed to be the oldest surviving school for black children in the United States was lifted onto a flatbed truck and moved half a mile Friday to Colonial Williamsburg, a Virginia museum that continues to expand its focus on African American history.
Built 25 years before the American Revolution, the original building stood near the campus of the College of William and Mary. The two-story pinewood building held up to 30 students at a time, some of whom were free black children who studied alongside enslaved people.
Hundreds of people lined the streets to celebrate a slow ride into the heart of the living history museum, which tells the story of Virginia’s colonial capital through interpreters and restored buildings.
For historians and descendants, the Bray School contradicts the belief that all enslaved Americans were uneducated. But the religion-based school curriculum, created by an English charity, also justified slavery and encouraged students to accept their destiny as God’s plan.
“Religion was at the center of the school, and it was not a gospel of abolition,” said Maureen Elgersman Lee, director of William & Mary’s Bray School Lab.
“There was a need to proselytize and save, but not do anything to destabilize the institution of slavery,” Lee said. “Save the soul, but keep robbing the body. It was here against the afterlife.”
More than half of the 2,000 people living in Williamsburg at the time were black — and most of them were enslaved. The school was founded in 1760 – 141 years after the beginning of slavery in Virginia A London Anglican charity on the recommendation of Benjamin Franklin. Named after the philanthropist Reverend Thomas Bray, the charity opened schools in other cities, including New York and Philadelphia.
The curriculum ranged from spelling to the Book of Common Prayer. But even within the school’s paternalistic framework, education could still be empowering, perhaps even undermining.
“I was looking at a facsimile of one of the books, and it has words like ‘freedom,'” Lee said. “What did learning these words do to expand these children’s sense of self? Their worldview?”
Isaac Bee, pupil at Bray School, would run away like an adult from a slave owner named Lewis Burwell. An advertisement Burwell placed in The Virginia Gazette in 1774 offering a monetary reward for his return warned that Bee could read.
white teacher a widow named Ann Wagnerlived upstairs in the school and taught an estimated 300 to 400 students, whose ages ranged from 3 to 10, according to surviving records.
The Williamsburg Bray School operated until 1774; only Philadelphia reopened after the Revolutionary War. The structure became a private home for many years before it was incorporated into the William & Mary campus.
The former school building was eventually moved from its original location to make way for a dormitory. It has been expanded over the years, most recently used as an office for ROTC, the college’s officer-training program.
Historians believed they had identified the original Bray School building, but this was only confirmed in 2021 using dendrochronology, a scientific method that examines tree rings in lumber to determine the date the wood was harvested.
“It’s a remarkable story of survival,” said Matthew Webster, Colonial Williamsburg’s executive director of architectural preservation and research. “And it’s very important for us to get it back (to its original state) and tell the full and true story.”
Bray’s school was exceptional: Although Virginia waited until the 1800s to enact laws against literacy, white leaders in much of Colonial America forbade the education of enslaved people, fearing that literacy would encourage their freedom. In South Carolina in 1740, teaching slaves to write English was made a criminal offense.
Inside the school building, the original column still stands at the bottom of the walnut march staircase, its square top rounded and chipped from centuries of use, Webster said, adding that it’s “a very powerful piece for a lot of people.”
For Toni Merid, Bray School Lab’s oral historian, the building evoked many emotions after her first visit. This was material evidence against the narrative that her ancestors were illiterate and dumb.
“Everything I learned about my ancestors was wrong,” she said. “They could learn. They studied. They were able.”
Meredith added, “Regardless of the school’s intentions, the children were still getting that education and perhaps using it for their own good and to help their community.”
Merid can trace her roots back to the Armistead family, who worked people in the Williamsburg area and are known to have sent at least one child named Locust to Bray School. But only the three-year lists of students have been preserved.
The Bray School Relocation is part of Colonial Williamsburg ongoing reckoning with the past narrative of black history and the story of the origin of the nation. The museum was founded in 1926, but did not talk about Black people until 1979.
In 2021 it is discovered the brick foundation of one of the oldest black churches in the country. last year archaeologists have begun excavating tombs at this site.
The new Bray school site is just around the corner.
“We’re coming back, and we’re getting this school, and we’re getting this legacy,” Merid said. “And we’re bringing it back to the historic area.”