“Your Most Obedient Servant”

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.

Emily Knoeppel working at Travis House. Photo by Grace Helmick.

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.

The Many Lives of Ann Wager

By Nicole Brown

It is a powerful fact that the past informs our present. The way our world operates on local, national, and global levels is permanently linked to historical events that scholars study and reflect upon. However, the “past” can sometimes feel unbelievably removed from our day-to-day lives; so remote does this ethereal past feel, we sometimes cannot understand how or why it matters as we move through our daily existence.

As the Lab Assistant at William & Mary’s Bray School Lab, my role is to support exploration of the history and legacies of the Williamsburg Bray School. Operating between 1760 and 1774, this school educated upwards of 350 children during its duration. Controversial in its time, the mission of the school was to teach basic reading, spelling, sewing and etiquette skills to enslaved and free Black children with the overarching goal of providing religious instruction in the Anglican tradition.

Making this history come alive is no small feat. I must understand people’s backgrounds with historical documents, their learning styles, their life experiences. Although having students work on transcriptions of letters and conduct archival research at the Lab makes this history speak to them, that method doesn’t work for everyone. Sometimes I don an eighteenth-century costume and travel all the way across the country to speak with students as Ann Wager, teacher at the Williamsburg Bray School.

Nicole Brown presenting at Sacramento State


Recently, I had the chance to speak at Sacramento State as a scholar and a museum professional. Although my work portraying Ann Wager is a career outside of my role at the Bray School Lab, these roles are interconnected. By making history feel immediate to a group of students who had never traveled outside the state of California, I was able to engage them better when I stepped “out-of-character” and spoke about the history of the Williamsburg Bray School. Suddenly, the remote past and our country’s legacy surrounding race, education, and religion felt immediate to these undergraduates. This is the power of finding ways to connect the past and present.

I introduced the students to Mrs. Wager in the spring of 1774, just a few months before her untimely death. Mrs. Wager’s legacy at the Bray School was long-standing by 1774, as was her experience with the school itself. The students were most compelled by Mrs. Wager’s seemingly inconsistent stance on encouraging Black education while also promoting the institution of slavery. Foreign to us in the 21st century, Ann’s divergent opinions on education and slavery were both common and controversial in colonial Virginia. On the one hand, the Bray School promoted education for enslaved and free Black children in an urban environment where much of the population was expected to be literate. On the other hand, Mrs. Wager was acutely aware (perhaps more than other members of the white community) that education which meant to indoctrinate could also empower students to achieve beyond such limitations.

I have extensively researched and portrayed Ann Wager at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation for almost five years. The Foundation and the Lab work very closely as part of the Williamsburg Bray School Initiative. The idea behind this partnership is to collaborate on and share “research, scholarship and dialogue regarding the interconnected, often troubled, legacy of race, religion and education in Williamsburg and in America.” I am very much a part of both sides in this relationship, especially when it comes to Ann.

Mrs. Wager’s life is a series of fragmentary facts that are complicated by her fraught role as teacher at the Williamsburg Bray School. In the fourteen years that Ann Wager taught reading, spelling, sewing, etiquette, and religious doctrine to her students she never once openly challenged the institution of slavery. Indeed, she appears to have been in support of the Bray School’s pro-slavery stance. However, using the documents I have available on Mrs. Wager it appears that the school challenged her opinions on colonial education while also conforming to its rigid social demands.

The ways in which I connect past and present surrounding the various experiences of Ann Wager is just one way to bring the history of the Williamsburg Bray School to life. A central goal at William & Mary’s Bray School Lab is animating history in academic settings while also creating connections for the Williamsburg community at large. How we lab isn’t just about methodological approaches or historical documents: it’s about inspiring people to see the various ways that the Williamsburg Bray School speaks to the legacy of race, faith, and education in our world today. Connecting the past to the present is not merely an academic exercise. It is a call for social justice. By following the Bray School’s story into present-day, we can find ways to make meaning in our current world.