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. 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.

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


“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.

“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