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.
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.