“Mapping” Pre-Revolutionary Bray Schools Across the Atlantic Coast of America, 1723-1777 

By Emma Jackson

As I concluded my summer 2023 internship with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, I began to ponder how I would continue my burgeoning passions for history creation, public history, and descendant engagement. Then, I met the director of the William & Mary Bray School Lab, who invited me to join her team as a Student Thought Partner. At the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, I began researching the Williamsburg and Fredericksburg Bray Schools, initiating my investment in 18th-century Black education and its ties to Christian colonialism. The W&M Bray School Lab allowed me to continue and expand my research, transforming it into a passionate and comprehensive project that focuses on mapping the schooling and Christianization efforts of Dr. Bray and his Associates.  

The Bray-Digges House, original structure of the Williamsburg Bray School (1760-1765). Photo courtesy of Emma Jackson.

It has been meaningful to engage with these existing histories and analyze the data in a way that accommodates for reinterpretation, as I have found that existing frameworks of analysis utilized by historical institutions and scholarship tend to glorify the efforts of Dr. Bray. Incongruities and gaps between the current historical canon and my research instigated this project and continue to drive its processes. I found it confounding and disturbing that the existing narrative of Thomas Bray and his Associates’ efforts posits them as benevolent manufacturers of educational opportunities for African American children. These children were subjugated to and degraded by theories of racial inferiority at the hand of Anglican doctrine. 

My methodological approach has been to systematically log and analyze the missionary efforts of Dr. Thomas Bray, his Associates, and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG). I catalogued this data in four main categories, including: schools and three independent categories for educational outreach: books requested, libraries sent, and missionary/catechetical education. These categories provided a scaffolding from which the data built meaning, collective memory, and histories. The Bray School children deserved more than an education that subjugated them to the furthest position of racial inferiority by entering their spiritual psyche, causing the internalization of subservience. This is why I engage in this research – to correct the narrative of the Bray School students and to honor their legacy by engaging with their descendants.  

The data paired with my analysis has revealed specific and unique insights into the 18thcentury educational opportunities presented to enslaved and free African Americans, all imbued with Anglican indoctrination. My research demonstrates that the Anglican Church, Thomas Bray and his Associates, and the SPG were heavily invested in strategically controlling and mandating the minds and religious psyche of African Americans, contributing to their erasure and/or misrepresentation in the historical canon.  

Specific evidence of indoctrination is found in the curriculum for the schools. Overwhelmingly, the lists of books provided for students were religious material, designed to instruct a young Black person exactly where their “place in life” is, according to the Anglican doctrine. By targeting one of the most vulnerable people groups – children – the Bray Associates were able to extend the effects of American slavery and colonialism to invade the space of the psyche and spirit of children. 

I owe a great debt to the Bray School Lab: for accepting me as a Student Thought Partner my senior year, for bolstering my skills of multimedia research and analysis, and for providing me the space to conduct meaningful and exciting research. Exposure to descendant engagement practices has also been impactful, as I have witnessed firsthand how the desires of the Bray School descendants drive processes of innovation at the Lab.  

The W&M Bray School Lab has offered me the tools and vocabulary required to practice restorative history. This opportunity has provided me with a path, through which I can channel my passion for unveiling true histories, confronting the current historical narrative, and engaging with descendant communities. Although the stories of the American Bray Schools are grim at times, I have learned the importance of positioning these students as actors and agents in their own story. These students grasped hold of the reading skills they were taught, albeit most material was wholly concentrated in religion, and multiplied their knowledge among their communities. In this way, these students transformed what was meant to subdue them into a method for racial uplift and community building.  

The longevity of my work inspires me, as I trust the Bray School Lab to continue this research even when I am gone. The structure of my project allows for future partners to build upon it, with the intent of further corrective historical research. I am forever grateful that I joined the W&M Bray School Lab; it has transformed my ideas of public history, descendant engagement, and research processes required to engage with the public/descendants.  

Emma Jackson at the 2024 Charles Center Research Symposium. Photo Courtesy of Emma Jackson.

Emma Jackson is currently a senior majoring in Anthropology and Art History and has served as a Student Thought Partner at the W&M Bray School Lab since the Fall of 2023.  

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