“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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Maureen Elgersman Lee
Director, W&M Bray School Lab
Mellon Engagement Coordinator for African American Heritage