WILLIAMSBURG — Beginning in 1760, two dozen or so enslaved and free Black children attended school each day in a small, two-story cottage in Williamsburg, a location suggested by Benjamin Franklin.
They learned the tenets of Christianity, reading, proper behavior and why they should accept enslavement.
Thanks to a retired College of William & Mary professor and a series of archaeological tests, Colonial Williamsburg has made a discovery — the school’s building still stands on William & Mary’s campus.
Until last month, the university’s military science department used it as storage for binders, weight scales and old class photos.
For nearly 70 years, the building’s history had been forgotten. Its location, purpose and appearance have all changed through the years, confusing historians.
Colonial Williamsburg is taking possession of the house, and it will spend the next year removing the renovations, stripping the building down to its original bones.
What it learns will change the way the foundation tells the intertwined stories of slavery, Christianity and education, one interpreter said.
“We aren’t going to know everything until we get it taken apart,” said Ron Hurst, a Colonial Williamsburg vice president for museums, preservation and historic resources. “But I just have this really good feeling we’re going to find everything we need to know.”
Endorsing Christianity, slavery
In the early 1700s, an English clergyman named Thomas Bray started a philanthropic group called The Associates of Dr. Bray dedicated to giving religious education to Black people in the colonies. Franklin suggested a handful of locations, including Williamsburg, and it became the first official school in Virginia for Black students.
Some of the group’s motives were altruistic. It believed it had a responsibility to save the souls of Black people, and it wanted enslaved children introduced to Christianity and reading the Bible. While school leaders didn’t see Black people as their equals, they did believe Blacks went to heaven, same as them.
But there was a darker side to the Bray School, too, as students were taught to accept their lot in life as slaves. An English clergyman at the time preached that some people are born to be kings, and some are born to be enslaved, said Terry Meyers, a retired English professor at William & Mary who jump-started the historic discovery. That’s God’s will, and it’s no person’s place to question God’s will. If happiness doesn’t come on earth, it’ll come in heaven.
The books that were taught at the school were littered with racism and white supremacy, Meyers said.
“That was the doctrine of the age,” he added.
In addition to religion, reading and general behavior, girls learned knitting and sewing. It isn’t clear if students learned to write, which was legal at the time.
The Virginia General Assembly made it more difficult for enslaved people to learn to read and write in the 1800s.
A recent archaeological dig around the house’s original location yielded a doll, clay marbles and 47 fragments of slate pencils, leading some to believe writing was taught.
The idea of educating Black people faced opposition and indifference. When the school’s teacher, Ann Wager, died in 1774, the school closed for good.
A building of many names
Construction on the school’s building began in 1760 at the intersection of Prince George and North Boundary Streets, where the Brown Hall dormitory now stands. It had two floors, with two rooms on the top and two on the bottom. The school opened that fall.
The building had been assembled quickly and cheaply, it seems. Five years after the school opened, its overseer said the facility was too small and couldn’t be occupied, and the school moved to another location.
At some point, the house was enlarged. Its triangular gable roof was widened to a gambrel style, with shingles extending over the building’s sides like a barn. Additions were constructed on either end, changing the footprint of the building to an L-shape.
The Methodist Women’s Missionary Society bought it around 1926 and converted it into a dorm. The society wanted a bigger space by 1930, so it sold the building to William & Mary, which lifted the structure onto a flatbed and tugged it less than one block west. Someone chronicled the relocation, taking pictures from a low-flying airplane.
William & Mary used the house as a residence for at least 50 years, and it had many names, including Old Brown Hall, Brown Hall Annex, Digges House and, most recently, Prince George House.
By 1974, the house’s history had been forgotten. An inventory of university buildings listed its construction date as 1915.
Buildings like this don’t survive
The Bray School house would not have been found if not for Terry Meyers, the retired English professor. He read in a book that there was an 18th-century cottage that had been moved down Prince George Street, but Meyers couldn’t find it.
He dropped by the Colonial Williamsburg’s John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library on his way home from lunch to see if a file existed on the building. One did, and it contained photos of the renovated house. Meyers returned to Prince George Street and realized the old building was hiding in plain sight. Someone had altered the roof and added extensions to either side of the house, moving the chimneys from the exterior to the interior. The Bray School house was still there.
Meyers’ initial discovery came in 2003. It took researchers almost two decades to determine the building’s age and original purpose, confirming Meyers’ long-held suspicion.
“I’m glad I lived long enough to see this day,” said Meyers, 76.
The Bray School house isn’t like other historical buildings. It isn’t big or fancy or owned by someone rich, like most of the buildings still standing from the 1700s. Those buildings were constructed the sturdiest, were considered valuable at the time and are more likely to be seen as important now. Buildings for common people tended to be used, worn out and demolished.
“Buildings like this just don’t survive,” said Matt Webster, Colonial Williamsburg’s director of architectural preservation. “So this is pretty exciting.”
The Bray School house is more representative of buildings in the 18th century. Most Virginians lived in one- and two-room structures at the time of the Revolution, Hurst said.
To determine its exact date, researchers drilled holes into the building’s walls and analyzed the ring patterns in the timber of the frame, a process known as dendrochronology. The result was a surprisingly specific time frame. The building’s wood was cut in late 1759 and early 1760, they determined, making it likely the oldest building still standing in the country dedicated to the education of Black children.
Much of the building’s original frame still exists. The current floor was laid over a much older one, likely the original surface. Webster wedged himself into the building’s crawl space to study it, lying on the foundation and looking up at the underside of the planks.
The messy saw marks on the wood suggest it was cut by hand, back and forth with a long pit saw, not the mechanical saws that emerged in the United States in the 1800s.
Until last year, researchers thought the house was built in 1790, the result of a paint analysis. Further studying revealed dirt and grime under the paint, leading them to believe the building wasn’t painted until 30 years after it was built and causing them to begin analyzing the building again.
Mystery surrounds the Bray School house. If it was so cheaply made, and it was falling apart just five years after its construction, why did people continue to renovate and expand it? Why pick it up and move it down the block? Why did it survive when so many other buildings did not?
Those are the questions Colonial Williamsburg hopes to answer during the next year. Researchers plan to study the wear patterns on the floor, hoping to ascertain how the building was used. They’ll look at the locks on the doors to figure out how much trust the building’s users had in one another.
When their analysis is complete, they will pick up the building and move it again, closer to the rest of the historical site. It will be the 89th building restored by Colonial Williamsburg. A new location hasn’t been determined.
The school’s teacher
The Bray School teacher, Ann Wager, has become a significant portion of Colonial Williamsburg’s programming. Nicole Brown, a William & Mary graduate student and interpreter, has portrayed her for the past three years. After the pandemic started, her performances transitioned to Facebook Live.
Wager, a white woman, was about 44 when the Bray School hired her. Many details of her life, such as her place of birth and maiden name, remain unknown. It’s up to Brown to estimate how Wager would talk and think based on years of research. Brown visited Oxford University and photographed 4,000 pages of documents on her phone, including the books that were taught at the time.
“Allow me a polite introduction. My name is Ann Wager, teacher of the Williamsburg Bray School,” Brown began during a recent presentation. “In this year of our Lord 17 and 69, my school is, well, the first official school for Blacks in this colony of Virginia, slave and free.”
The content is heavy-hitting, Brown said. It involves issues of religion, education and slavery, and draws uncomfortable questions that Brown is tasked with answering, both from her perspective as a historian and from Wager’s.
“I think I see Ann in the big picture as being reflective of the fallacies of white America and America in general,” Brown said. “She did some things that were commendable and some things that were horrible.”
What Colonial Williamsburg has learned about the Bray School, and what it hopes to learn, will have an impact on how the foundation tells these stories, Brown said. She wants to include the perspective of the students in future presentations.
Meyers, the English professor, said it’s important for people to understand the thirst the Black community had for education at the time. In his research, he came upon a letter from 1723, written by an enslaved person to the new bishop of London. The enslaved person asked for two things: release from slavery and religious education.
William & Mary and the country as a whole have a “dark and sordid association with slavery,” Meyers said. But the Bray School was a “less dim spot” in that history.