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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.