The Past Speaks: Capturing the Legacy of the Bray School Through Oral Histories

Oral historians preserve the past by documenting the voices and memories of people who have a shared history. Descendants of the Williamsburg Bray School share a legacy that began in a small white cottage more than two hundred and sixty years ago. As Oral Historian for the William & Mary Bray School Lab, I am working to preserve that legacy by capturing oral histories of the descendant community members, as well as the archaeologists, architects, historians, and students working on the project.     

I learned about the Bray School during my first visit to Williamsburg in 2013, and eagerly began to search for more information. On my second visit, later that same year, I located the building on the William & Mary campus long rumored to be the Bray School, and reached out to touch the building where, at one time, enslaved children were taught to read. It inspired me to pursue my master’s degree in history with the hope of one day being a part of the Bray School project. While I pursued my degree, I had the opportunity to work as an intern under the oral historian for the African American Library at the Gregory School in Houston, Texas. I participated in several projects in Houston’s historic Fourth Ward, including the Gregory School, Olivewood Cemetery, and the Rutherford B. H. Yates Museum. As part of my research, I interviewed members of the descendant community and collected oral histories and traditions of their ancestors handed down from generation to generation.

Bray School building, January 2023. Photo by Grace Helmick.

Imagine my sense of elation when in 2021 I heard that dendrochronology testing had confirmed that the building on Prince George Street was, indeed, the Bray School. That confirmation changed the trajectory of my career. After finishing my degree, I moved to Williamsburg and started working as a historic interpreter with Colonial Williamsburg. I learned about the world the students lived in as members of an enslaved community and I immersed myself in the culture of the African American community here in Williamsburg. Listening to oral histories and engaging with the interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg has informed the research I will use as an oral historian to document the legacy of the Bray School students.

To guide me in these efforts, I will be utilizing a very important tool, a rubric of best practices designed to assist teachers and public historians when working with descendant communities.  “Engaging Descendant Communities” is a collaboration between scholars of African and African American history together with descendant community members that will help historians and museums successfully engage with descendant communities who for years have been overlooked or tokenized when historic sites related to them were being recognized. The rubric puts emphasis on the important part the descendant community should play in recognizing historic sites that involve their ancestors while discussing the three pillars upon which to build descendant engagement: historical research, relationship building and interpretation. These pillars are essential in making sure that descendant communities do not feel ignored or erased, and that the truth about slavery and its impact on society can be realized but never repeated.

Trying to recover the history of those who left no written record sometimes can feel like a formidable task, leaving some historians to forego any attempts to do so. However, in his work, Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War, historian Vincent Brown writes that “As surely as wind and water change the contours of stone, slavery’s archival sources have been shaped by the black people they rarely describe. Reading these records both against the grain, to investigate things the sources never meant to illustrate, and along the grain, to note how they constrain and shape our knowledge, we can tell plausible stories about the aspirations and strivings of the enslaved.” My objective is to use the archives but also the oral histories as a source to shape our knowledge of the lives of the Bray students through their descendants.

Tonia at work in the Lab. Photo by Grace Helmick.

Recently, I learned through genealogical research that I am a member of the descendant community. I am inspired by the words, “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams.” Never could these children have imagined, as they looked out the rear window of the school and saw the Wren building in the backdrop, that their descendants would one day attend William & Mary and contribute to its diversity and equity as community members of the town that once enslaved them. Through my work, I hope to inspire other members to learn more about their ancestors and actively participate in educating others about the history of the Williamsburg Bray School.

Tonia Cansler Merideth joined the Office of Strategic Cultural Partnerships as Oral Historian for the Bray School Lab in December 2022. Her email is tmerideth@wm.edu.

“Take Particular Care of Manners and Behaviour:” The Rules of the Williamsburg Bray School

It was dusk as I walked down Prince George Street, my partner and I enjoying a double scoop of Kilwins ice cream. As we passed the Bray-Digges House, the first home of the Williamsburg Bray School for enslaved and free Black children, we came across another couple standing in front of the building’s security fence. They were reading a sign concerning the research and archeological work being done under the partnership between William & Mary and The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation to research, relocate, and restore the Bray School. Thrilled, I rushed up to the pair and explained that I am a student volunteer involved in the project. It was simply the most exciting opportunity to discuss my experience and to express just how important the work being done by various volunteers, scholars, preservationists, and archeologists is to the understanding of our collective past.

Bray School Lab student thought partners working at Travis House. (Left to right) Rachel Hogue, Madeline Dort, Emily Knoeppel, and Mary Hannah Grier. Photo by Grace Helmick.

At the William & Mary Bray School Lab, I have been given the task of transcribing various primary documents, especially trustee letters and class lists, concerning the Bray Associates and the broader school system. Primarily I ensured that Transkribus, the AI software employed in reading documents, correctly captured and deciphered the authors’ handwriting and produced an accurate transcription. In the future, these transcriptions will be made available digitally to allow broad public access.

This transcription work is allowing us to study more closely the administrators and students involved with the Bray School. I have looked at and worked most closely with several documents concerning the rules of the Bray School, written by two early trustees, Reverend Thomas Dawson (ca. 1715-1760) and William Hunter (d. 1761). Thomas Dawson was the rector of Bruton Parish and president of the College of William & Mary; William Hunter was the colony’s official printer and publisher of the Virginia Gazette. These two men cemented the foundation for the Williamsburg Bray School and secured its opening on September 29, 1760. Ann Wager (ca. 1716–1774), the school’s sole teacher, was accountable for instructing the likely 300 to 400 children that came in her door between 1760 and 1774.

Image of 1762 Williamsburg Bray School final rules list.
Courtesy of the USPG Bray Associates Collection, Weston Library, University of Oxford. 
Photo by Nicole Brown.

Notably, the draft of school rules begins by ensuring that the students’ owners attend to keeping them “clean wash’d & combed.” This suggests that enslavers did not always keep Black children in a state of cleanliness. But the rule raises another question. Are Dawson and Hunter suggesting that cleanliness is not about hygiene, but rather a signifier of race or whiteness? If so, are they already drawing lines between the students and the whole of the white population by including such an assumption?

Dawson and Hunter continued, “Negroes be not condemned in their Faults, or their Teacher discouraged in the Performance of her Duty.” Seemingly more empathetic, Dawson and Hunter proposed that the students not be criticized for mistakes they may make in the classroom. By extension, Ann Wager should not be discouraged when efforts fail due to what they considered biological difference. Another rule expounds on this instruction with a list of behaviors to watch for: “they [Wager] take particular Care of the Manners and Behaviour of the Negroes, and by all proper / Methods discourage Idleness, and suppress the Beginnings of Vice; such as Lying, Cursing, Swearing, profaning the Lords-Day, obscene Discourse, Stealing.”

Together, the rules suggest that with proper adherence to “Religious Behaviour,” “both Master and Servant may be better inform’d of their Duty.” Through an appropriate understanding of the “Blessing of God,” as taught in their schools, Black children and white adults would be coworkers in maintaining and securing Virginia’s eighteenth-century slave society. They propose that Williamsburg’s “faulted” Black community may be more “civilized” and more useful when given a proper religious education. To be sure, many of the written rules naturally involve the students’ and the mistress’ religious commitment, but also include practical instructions such as what time school sessions should be held and Ann Wager’s salary (“£16 Sterling, or any sum not exceeding £20 Sterling. Per Ann”).

As a fourth-year Education student, I felt incredibly enlightened while reading these documents. I aspire to teach secondary education English Literature, and looking at these rules through the lens of my own experience, I feel a connection to fellow educator Ann Wager and to the students. I believe that I have taken away a critical knowledge of the eighteenth-century educational system and have also established a greater awareness of the systemic inequality and disparity that continues to weaken what is meant to be a central pillar of American democracy: public education for all. And, yes, while my exposure to these documents and correspondence has been at times disturbing, particularly as the language employed is fraught with racist terminology and meaning, recognizing these items is key in forming a progressive and inclusive American history–history I intend to share as a future educator. Indeed, I trust my work with the Bray School Lab will serve as illuminating material for generations to come.

Madeline Dort ’23
English

What a Difference a Year Makes: A Bray School Lab Thanksgiving Blog

It has been a full year since we publicly launched the Bray School Lab! In late October 2021, President Katherine Rowe (William & Mary) and President Cliff Fleet (The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation) provided updates on the Williamsburg Bray School Initiative and announced the launch of the W&M Bray School Lab in front of descendants, local officials, corporate partners, and other stakeholders. Since then, we have had a run of successful events and have learned a lot.  

In January 2022, we launched the Bray School Lab website with staff profiles, basic operational information, and a Williamsburg Bray School Initiative overview. Because we were still laboring under the effects of COVID, we introduced the Bray School Lab and Strategic Cultural Partnerships team via a Virtual Meet & Greet in February. We also launched this blog, A Reasonable Progress, and we onboarded our initial student thought partners who took projects in transcription, story mapping, and bibliography and ran with them. In March, the Bray School Lab was represented at the Lemon Project Symposium which focused on the lived experiences of Black boys and men. In April, students in the Mason School of Business shared their marketing research and recommendations for the Lab. We ended the spring with a hybrid Descendant Outreach Week in May.

Community members visit Travis House during a Bray Lab event. Photo by Grace Helmick.

June was particularly busy, with Juneteenth celebrations on campus and in the community. At the same time, our “Discovering the Williamsburg Bray School” episode on the Ben Franklin’s World podcast went live. July and August were spent in research and historical imagining; one result was a contract with The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation to produce a book on the Bray School. It is tentatively titled, The Williamsburg Bray School Letters: A Community Speaks.  

Fall has been our busiest season so far. In September, we publicly announced the Bray School book project which is designed to bring the Williamsburg Bray School story to life through archival research and community reflection. With October came our first Slate Seminar, the annual conference of the Bray School Lab, and the release of Adam & Fanny’s World, a digital story map created by one of our amazing student thought partners. Over the course of the year, we logged some 200+ hours of engagement by several student thought partners, advanced the work of the Lab considerably, and benefited from generous private and public support.

Dr. Hannah Rosen, Dr. Sara Bon-Harper, Dr. Maureen Elgersman-Lee, and Dr. Jody Allen speak at the Slate Seminar panel “The Full Legacy: William & Mary Confronts Its Complex Past.” Photo by Grace Helmick.

That is all great and very important. But what have we learned in the past year? Well, we have learned very much. 

  1. Community engagement is hard work that cannot be accomplished overnight. Community engagement is the result of intentionality and persistence applied over time. We appreciate today, even more, various community members, community organizations, and university partners for their service and longevity. This is not work for the time being, this is an investment in the future and for the long haul.
  2. Partnership is critical to our success. I cannot think of how many times I have tried to solve a problem or imagine a pathway on my own, only to have my eyes opened by a conversation with one of our partners. I also cannot tell you how moved I have been by all those who have taken tours of the Bray School building, attended Bray School Lab presentations, personally connected with the Bray School as a descendant or general stakeholder, and gave to advance the Williamsburg Bray School story—no matter the amount. It is so true that you may go faster on your own, but you go farther with someone else.
  3. Students are some of our best idea generators. Students are incredible thought partners. Not only do they have enviable amounts of energy, but they also have amazing insight and imagination. As Bray School Lab Director, I love being a fly on the wall listening to students ask questions, posit theories, recommit to the research, and share with each other. They do not leave the same way we found them. And they often do not want to leave. Despite moving out of state, studying abroad, or graduating, student thought partners have consistently desired to remain connected with our work. I believe this is a barometer of the intellectual culture that is William & Mary, but I know this is also about the pull of the Williamsburg Bray School story and the more than 80 Black children that we know, to date, passed through.

For all these things and more, we are thankful—for the people, for the work, for the journey.

Dr. Maureen Elgersman Lee
Director, W&M Bray School Lab
Mellon Engagement Coordinator for African American Heritage

  

 “Who Knows What You May Be”: Reconstructing the Lives of the Bray School Students Adam and Fanny

Our research begins with names: Adam, Fanny, Charlotte, Isaac, Hannah. Sometimes, finding the names is the end-goal of our work, requiring a needle-in-a-haystack level of attention to a historical document or an archive. In the case of the Bray School Lab’s research, however, the names are our starting points. We begin with a name and seek to find the whole person behind it. 

The Story Map that I helped develop, called Adam and Fanny’s World, depicts a day in the lives of several of the students – starting with Adam and Fanny, two children enslaved by William & Mary (known in text as The College). This project is an extension of the mission that the Lab has to share new research in exciting and innovative ways. It is free and directly available to the public, built upon the primary documents that we used as part of our research and transcription projects.  

Mary Hannah Grier working on Adam and Fanny's World. Photo by Grace Helmick
Mary Hannah Grier working on Adam and Fanny’s World, 2021. Photo by Grace Helmick.

This Story Map reimagines what the physical and social landscape of Williamsburg might have looked like to Adam, Fanny, and the other students at the School, combining it with the context of present-day memorials and landmarks. In this way, the present and the past are treated as parallel to one another, interacting at different sites around the city and directly connecting the people who live and work in Williamsburg now with those who did centuries ago. Public history encourages this kind of approach, where we can “re-people” both existing and reconstructed spaces by reading between the lines of existing documents rather than being restricted by what little direct information exists. It is our hope that you will utilize this project to reconsider what we do know about Bray School scholars and their world.

Public history allows us to breathe life into the people and places we research, going beyond the text of a historical document to get to what someone’s lived experience was like—to know how they might have seen and moved about in the world around them. This process of creatively reconstructing people themselves is easier for some historical figures than it is for others. People whose writings or materials survive – like well-known political thinkers and enslavers such as Thomas Jefferson or George Washington – tend to be less challenging to uncover. They were wealthy white men and well known by their contemporaries, a perfect recipe for importance in the historical record. For so many other people, however, their voices are either hidden behind the lines of recorded history or left out altogether. We must turn to the historical imagination to fill in the gaps.  

Nicole Brown sharing a preview of Adam and Fanny’s World during Descendant Outreach Week, 2021. Photo by Grace Helmick.

The enslaved children who attended the Bray School are accounted for largely as footnotes in the writings of the white enslavers of Williamsburg, in documents that do not give them the dignity of speaking for themselves or expressing their personalities. Pulling threads of their lived experiences out of these documents requires us to do what historian Marisa J. Fuentes calls “reading along the bias grain” of the historical record in her 2016 book, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive. This involves actively considering the ways in which the documents we are using are imbalanced and even violent in how they treat enslaved people.

To read along the bias grain, scholars start with what we know of the experiences of enslaved people in households such as those in which the Bray scholars resided. We add this information to whatever details we can glean about these students directly from primary sources, accounting for the biases of the archive and what these documents are refusing to tell us. Finally, we take those together with any other relevant first-hand accounts, putting them all into a narrative to try and capture what these children’s perspectives might have been and how they might have experienced and interacted with the world. 

The core goals of the Bray School Lab are to communicate the results of our research and analysis to the public in ways that are accessible and creative, and to share the stories of the people involved with the Bray School with empathy and honor. Adam, Fanny, and the many other students who attended the Bray School deserve to be seen as the inquisitive, shy, creative, opinionated, outspoken, determined, imperfect (and everything else) children that they may have been, not just the subjects of an advertisement or an aside in the letter of an enslaver. When we view them as the full people they were, we open up the ways in which we in the present can directly connect to the Bray School students in the past. We hope that this Story Map’s reach may extend to helping individuals and families in the many descendant communities linked with Williamsburg on their paths to connect with their own family histories. The more students we can name and the more ways we are able to connect them with the wider community, the more we will help move forward all types of historical inquiry for years to come.  

Mary Hannah Grier 

Bray School Lab Student Thought Partner, William & Mary ’22

CW Historic Trades Bindery Intern, Summer 2022


“Neat in Their Cloaths”: Nancy, Squire, and the 1765 Bray School Student List

By Rachel Hogue

This spring I had the privilege of working on the Williamsburg Bray School Records Project as part of the Bray School Lab’s first cohort of undergraduate student thought partners. We worked to unravel the stories of Bray School scholars, a valuable part of which was searching for material culture references to the tactile dimensions of the students’ studies and lives.

This summer I had the opportunity to seek answers about the material culture and lived experience of Bray School students through continual work in the Lab and an internship in the Historic Trades and Skills department at Colonial Williamsburg. I spent the summer interpreting for the public in the Margaret Hunter millinery shop while learning skills of a mantua-maker and milliner (18th-century dressmaking and accessory making). My work in the Bray School Lab, in hands-on trades work, and in the Rockefeller Library archives intertwined to reveal the community that surrounded the Bray School students and shaped their reality as enslaved children. When these interdisciplinary approaches to historical research were put into conversation, I was able to place students, households, fabrics, and stitches into context with one another. This research introduced me to Nancy and Squire, and here is part of their story.

Rachel Hogue performing public interpretation. Photo by Susan McCall.

Nancy is found on the 1765 Bray School student list as enslaved by a Mr. Charlton, most likely wigmaker Edward Charlton. Six years later, Edward Charlton married Jane Hunter, making Nancy not only enslaved within a wigmaker’s household but also a milliner’s. Both trades required sewing and “other such things,” which for Nancy could have meant laundry, reading recipes for removing stains, or the complex task of clear starching (an entire branch of 18th-century laundry to keep fine millinery crisp and clean).  As a female student, Nancy would have been trained in labor-intensive skills beyond the work of reading and writing, specifically “knitting, sewing, and such other things.”  Given the nature of her work and her education, Nancy probably had a workbag—a simple drawstring woolen bag common place in the 18th century—that she used to carry needles, thimbles, and other items on her daily walk between the Bray School and the Charlton household.

Therefore, during my summer internship I used 18th-century hand-sewing methods to approach a project I began to call “Nancy’s bag.” In 1789, a book entitled Dressing the Poor was published in England and gave instructions for clothing the white children of London’s charity “Schools of Industry”  and recommended “Workbags as Reward” for the completion of a young girl’s first pair of knitted stockings. Nancy’s education and forced labor would have equipped her with nimble skills coveted by white gentry women—and yet her status kept her from legally owning that very labor. Nancy’s bag was made by carefully following the manual’s instructions: “mulberry wool…tape of the same color…and a white ticket marked with the name of the student.” Through the hands-on nature of this research project, I was able to glimpse the tactile nature of Nancy’s world.

Material culture and public history allow for historical imagining where historical justice can be imbued into objects presented to the public. A simple work bag can become a tool to discuss the paradoxes between enslaved labor and free white labor in the 18th-century British Atlantic world. I see “Nancy’s bag” as an act of reparation. If she was not given a bag with her name, she could have used the Bray School skills of reading, cyphering, and sewing to inscribe her identity on a bag of her own making. Today, when we as historians place Nancy’s name upon a tangible object, it starts to push her story, her identity, and her humanity past the biased lines of the written archive.

Squire also attended the Williamsburg Bray School in 1765 and was likely enslaved by Colonel Philip Johnson. A 1769 invoice tucked into a letter between Bray School trustee Robert Carter Nicholas and merchant John Norton indicates that Nicholas brokered the acquisition of 300 ells (40-inch lengths) of oznabrig for Johnson’s use in clothing his enslaved people. Maybe Squire’s share of the 300 ells was particularly coarse and scratchy—the thick cloth weighing down his shoulders and making him squirm in distraction while at school. When Robert Carter Nicholas wrote his expectations for teacher Ann Wager to keep the students “clean & neat in their Cloaths,” he also invoked that unpleasant oznabrig reserved for the enslaved community of which Squire was a part.

1769 Invoice. John Hatley Norton Papers, John D. Rockefeller Jr Library, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

While the Bray School Lab guided my research as to what this clothing might be, my work in historic trades taught me the reality of how it might be by running my hand across oznabrig-like linen and feeling the unpleasant texture that would have dictated Squire’s movements and comfortability. If Squire chose, like other enslaved boys, to run through the streets of Williamsburg without all of their clothing, his choice held a gravity far greater than that of white children choosing not to be “neat in their clothes.” As Nancy and Squire moved throughout town, their names, households, and outward appearance would notify the town of their place as Bray School scholars. But their decision to wear or not to wear prescribed clothing could also reflect resistance to the oppression of Williamsburg slave society.

While the archive’s biases work to limit researchers’ ability to peer into the humanity, childhood, education, and enslavement of Bray School scholars, reading between the lines of the written record and placing sources like instruction manuals and invoices in conversation uncovers the lived experiences of these students. How they carried their tools and how their clothing felt against their skin shaped the reality of their everyday lives under enslavement.


Rachel Hogue ’24 is a history major at William & Mary.

“Your Most Obedient Servant”

By Emily Knoeppel

In early 1761, William Hunter, a trustee of Williamsburg’s Bray School, wrote to London to update the Bray Associates on the school’s first few months. He also wrote to recommend Mr. Robert Carter Nicholas as a trustee of the school, a position which Nicholas accepted. An active and patriotic Virginian and participant in Virginia’s various General Assemblies, Nicholas held this trustee position for nearly 13 of the school’s 14 years, outliving many of his fellow trustees and becoming near lead manager of the school’s affairs.

Every few months Nicholas would write to the Associates about developments and progress at the school. Most of the letters examined in the Bray School Lab were penned by Nicholas himself. These documents made up the bulk of records that I spent most of the Spring semester reviewing for the Lab. So much so that I came to regard Robert Carter Nicholas as a guide to the developments and inner workings of the Bray School.

Emily Knoeppel working at Travis House. Photo by Grace Helmick.

Nicholas’ writings inducted me into the world of 1760s-1770s Williamsburg and its Bray School. The very first letter I examined was his letter to the Bray Associates in September 1761. He noted William Hunter’s death, William Yates’ willingness to join Nicholas in supporting the school, and—via reports from school mistress, Mrs. Ann Wager—the school’s progress relative to the year before. Subsequent letters I transcribed mostly followed the same pattern: a brief update on the school or its students, an aside about Mrs. Wager, the occasional update of the passing of a fellow trustee, and usually concluded with mention of funding, whether for an advancement or change to the school’s upkeep budget.

In September 1765, Nicholas described the struggle he faced finding another suitable and affordable building for the school and its pupils. This preceded the school’s removal from the initial building that is undergoing restoration today. The Bray School Lab has also been involved in studying this first building, which was both a school and a residence for Mrs. Wager.

Perhaps the most interesting and revealing of Nicholas’ letters to the Associates was one he wrote in December 1765, which discussed the school’s running in greater detail and included a list of students.   His letter notes thirty-four students in attendance at the time, all aged approximately between four and ten. He revealed that attendance was not mandatory, that the students attended when they could, and that Mrs. Wager willingly taught whoever arrived on that day.

Nicholas also noted that once the children were deemed old enough to begin work within their owners’ homes, they were often kept from school to complete those duties and were only occasionally able to return to the school. In this same letter, Nicholas briefly explained the curriculum and his hopes that children would be permitted to attend school for at least three years to properly learn and master the material. He also recorded that the children did not quite take to the rules he had proposed in 1762 as he had hoped.

Nicholas wrote of his own enslaved girl, Hannah, a Bray school student. He appeared encouraging of her education and progress, however, he also wrote of his disappointment when she appeared to be ‘a sad Jade’ despite his attempts at ‘reforming’ her.

Nicholas was key to my understanding of the Bray School and its history. Much of my insight into the school was guided through his letters, which revealed some of the inner workings of the school and its aims. Nicholas was very much – and perhaps unfortunately – a man of his time. A flawed man by modern standards yet a lenient man by contemporary standards, or at least in his own view. His letters paint a man with a fervor for and a dedication to the school and education of the enslaved children permitted to attend. I would like to believe that despite the racial constraints of the time and his innate prejudices, Nicholas truly believed in the small good he was doing and the potential for the difference education could make in the lives of those enslaved students.

My time at the lab was illuminating: a chance to explore a unique establishment that provided an education to enslaved children for over 14 years–one of the first instances in North American history–in a period where their basic rights and freedoms were denied. This was such a unique and rich experience that has helped me understand not only the past but the present, shining a light on a part of history that is unknown and largely ignored. By navigating the intricacies of the education of a minority of Williamsburg’s enslaved population in 1760s and 1770s and helping to bring this important history to the forefront of Williamsburg’s history and to the public, we can help expand the lens of history to include even those most marginalized.

The Many Lives of Ann Wager

By Nicole Brown

It is a powerful fact that the past informs our present. The way our world operates on local, national, and global levels is permanently linked to historical events that scholars study and reflect upon. However, the “past” can sometimes feel unbelievably removed from our day-to-day lives; so remote does this ethereal past feel, we sometimes cannot understand how or why it matters as we move through our daily existence.

As the Lab Assistant at William & Mary’s Bray School Lab, my role is to support exploration of the history and legacies of the Williamsburg Bray School. Operating between 1760 and 1774, this school educated upwards of 350 children during its duration. Controversial in its time, the mission of the school was to teach basic reading, spelling, sewing and etiquette skills to enslaved and free Black children with the overarching goal of providing religious instruction in the Anglican tradition.

Making this history come alive is no small feat. I must understand people’s backgrounds with historical documents, their learning styles, their life experiences. Although having students work on transcriptions of letters and conduct archival research at the Lab makes this history speak to them, that method doesn’t work for everyone. Sometimes I don an eighteenth-century costume and travel all the way across the country to speak with students as Ann Wager, teacher at the Williamsburg Bray School.

Nicole Brown presenting at Sacramento State


Recently, I had the chance to speak at Sacramento State as a scholar and a museum professional. Although my work portraying Ann Wager is a career outside of my role at the Bray School Lab, these roles are interconnected. By making history feel immediate to a group of students who had never traveled outside the state of California, I was able to engage them better when I stepped “out-of-character” and spoke about the history of the Williamsburg Bray School. Suddenly, the remote past and our country’s legacy surrounding race, education, and religion felt immediate to these undergraduates. This is the power of finding ways to connect the past and present.

I introduced the students to Mrs. Wager in the spring of 1774, just a few months before her untimely death. Mrs. Wager’s legacy at the Bray School was long-standing by 1774, as was her experience with the school itself. The students were most compelled by Mrs. Wager’s seemingly inconsistent stance on encouraging Black education while also promoting the institution of slavery. Foreign to us in the 21st century, Ann’s divergent opinions on education and slavery were both common and controversial in colonial Virginia. On the one hand, the Bray School promoted education for enslaved and free Black children in an urban environment where much of the population was expected to be literate. On the other hand, Mrs. Wager was acutely aware (perhaps more than other members of the white community) that education which meant to indoctrinate could also empower students to achieve beyond such limitations.

I have extensively researched and portrayed Ann Wager at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation for almost five years. The Foundation and the Lab work very closely as part of the Williamsburg Bray School Initiative. The idea behind this partnership is to collaborate on and share “research, scholarship and dialogue regarding the interconnected, often troubled, legacy of race, religion and education in Williamsburg and in America.” I am very much a part of both sides in this relationship, especially when it comes to Ann.

Mrs. Wager’s life is a series of fragmentary facts that are complicated by her fraught role as teacher at the Williamsburg Bray School. In the fourteen years that Ann Wager taught reading, spelling, sewing, etiquette, and religious doctrine to her students she never once openly challenged the institution of slavery. Indeed, she appears to have been in support of the Bray School’s pro-slavery stance. However, using the documents I have available on Mrs. Wager it appears that the school challenged her opinions on colonial education while also conforming to its rigid social demands.

The ways in which I connect past and present surrounding the various experiences of Ann Wager is just one way to bring the history of the Williamsburg Bray School to life. A central goal at William & Mary’s Bray School Lab is animating history in academic settings while also creating connections for the Williamsburg community at large. How we lab isn’t just about methodological approaches or historical documents: it’s about inspiring people to see the various ways that the Williamsburg Bray School speaks to the legacy of race, faith, and education in our world today. Connecting the past to the present is not merely an academic exercise. It is a call for social justice. By following the Bray School’s story into present-day, we can find ways to make meaning in our current world.

“Reasonable Progress”

“I have lately visited the School here & examin’d the Children, who seem to have made a reasonable Progress[.]”

Robert Carter Nicholas to Rev. John Waring, December 27, 1765

Welcome to the inaugural edition of A Reasonable Progress, the blog of the W&M Bray School Lab. Part history, part reflection, part Lab report, A Reasonable Progress will be one of the various ways in which we share the work of the Bray School Lab with the public. The authors of blog posts will include Bray Lab staff, W&M student thought partners, Bray School descendants, W&M faculty, K-12 teachers, independent scholars, and others invested in the history of the Bray School and its students.

The Williamsburg Bray School opened its doors and welcomed its first class of young students on September 29, 1760. Founded by the London-based Anglican charity known as The Associates of Dr. Bray, the school educated Black children in the tenets of the Anglican faith and provided a basic, practical education. The Williamsburg Bray School operated for a total fourteen years, during which time the school’s only teacher, Mrs. Ann Wager, provided instruction to an estimated 300 to 400 students. We don’t yet know the names of those first boys and girls, but we do know that they were initially twenty-four in number and likely between three and ten years of age. Fortunately, there are surviving lists for three of the fourteen Bray School years.

Photo by Nicole Brown

The Bray School gave Black children new identities. Most of the children were enslaved, and some were free, but when they crossed the threshold of that 17’ by 33’ house-turned-school, they lives took on a new dimension. Bray School Trustee records refer to the children—like Doll, Aggy, Mary Anne, Aberdeen, John, and London—as scholars, and we cast them in that positive frame.We hope to capture the same energy and hope of possibility as we write about these students in the coming years.

The Reasonable Progress quote is taken from Robert Carter Nicholas’s 1765 report to the Bray Associates. A graduate of William & Mary, Nicholas was a practicing lawyer and esteemed member of the House of Burgesses. Nicholas was also a enslaver who sent at least two of the children he owned to the Bray School. Hannah, 7, appears on the 1762 student list and Sarah, no age given, appears on the 1769 list. The 1765 appraisal noted that the children were reading quite well and learning their prayers and catechism. Despite being one of the school’s staunchest supporters and administrators, Robert Carter Nicholas still seems to have had reservations about the lasting impact of the recommended three years of Bray School attendance and was afraid that the work of the school was being undone by the environments in which the children lived. The tensions between the students’ lived experiences inside and outside the Bray School are one of the many subjects we plan to tease out here.

Photo by Skip Rowland

As the blog of the W&M Bray School Lab, A Reasonable Progress will chronicle the history of the Williamsburg Bray School, its purpose, and its curriculum. We will delve deeply into the lived experiences of Bray School students, the ways in which they made spaces for agency, and their connections to Williamsburg today. The blog will also highlight Lab processes and show you how we lab in creating a digital, public-facing research archive. Finally, we invite you to join us as thought partners and writers, creating content for a broad audience that is both academic and non-academic, local and international.  

We are waiting to hear from you at braylab@wm.edu.

Dr. Maureen Elgersman Lee
Director, W&M Bray School Lab
Mellon Engagement Coordinator for African American Heritage

Photo by Corey Miller Photography