Standing in the Gap: Exploring Histories of Williamsburg, 1774-1777 

By Daniel Pleasant

My initial motivation for joining the William & Mary Bray School Lab was to engage in research relevant to my major. However, my experience at the Bray School Lab has evolved into a transformative journey, prompting me to reflect on my family heritage and the stories of those who preceded me on this campus. 

As an African-American male, the Bray School story has facilitated meaningful conversations with older relatives, allowing me to explore firsthand experiences related to societal disparities—whether economic, social, or civil. Since joining, I’ve worked on the Standing in the Gap (SIG) Project, a challenging yet rewarding endeavor focusing on the period after the Williamsburg Bray School closed in 1774 through the termination of operations by the Bray Associates in North American during 1777. 

Specifically, my project delves into studying the households of the school’s students and their enslavers during this hiatus. While the W&M Bray School Lab possesses substantial information about the school’s operations, there’s a noticeable gap regarding events post-closure. Understanding this period is crucial for comprehending the Bray School’s functions, revealing what happened to some of the students and their communities between 1774 and 1777. 

Despite limited information, the sources gathered for the project have laid important scholarly groundwork, with continuous discoveries through new documents being a particularly enjoyable element of my work. This process not only enriches the “Standing in the Gap” timeline, but also fosters connections within the cohort of Student Thought Partners at the William & Mary Bray School Lab as we share findings and collaborate on projects. Utilizing various sources, including records of business endeavors and the states of enslavers’ households, we explored prominent figures such as John Blair, Lord Dunmore, and Christiana Campbell through the SIG Project. 

When looking at these prominent names within the history of the Bray School and its students, it has allowed us to make connections and uncover the particulars between students, their familial networks, and their enslavers. For example, when looking at John Blair, who served as the president of the William & Mary Board of Visitors before 1774, the SIG project gives us the ability to look at the specifics of his household and the treatment of his enslaved individuals. Through the examination of documents, both primary and secondary, we can learn that he owned upward of 15 enslaved people during his lifetime. This included Issac Bee, a learned young man who self-emancipated at the age of 18 and sought freedom. 

Furthermore, not only does this timeline incorporate information regarding the relationship between the Bray School and its students, but it also highlights how details regarding the American Revolution may have impacted the entire Black community between the closing of the school in 1774 and the Bray Associates ceasing operations in North America in April 1777.  In regards to the revolution, information can be seen through documents regarding Lord Dunmore, who served as the last royal governor of Virginia. In particular, when focusing on the American Revolution, the SIG projects highlight events such as Dunmore’s proclamation declared in November of 1775 which sought to recruit African American troops to fight for the British crown in exchange for their freedom.  

Lastly, the SIG project grants us information regarding sites and events that are still relevant to the city of Williamsburg today. This can be seen when we view someone such as Christiana Campbell, a tavern keeper and enslaver who owned multiple lots within Williamsburg. Her tavern operates within Colonial Williamsburg today and is a regularly frequented historical site (although the modern-day tavern was not the official residence of her or her household until 1771).  The tavern was an extremely popular location during 1774-1777 as it was frequented by individuals such as George Washington and used to quarter soldiers. The project goes even further by connecting the tavern with the events that transpired during the American Revolution by establishing its closing in 1776 due to “critical times.” 

This structure was the site for Christiana Campbell’s Tavern post-1771. It is possible some Bray School students lived and labored on this property. Photo by The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

On a broader scale, our project involves engaging potential in-person sources, like descendants of Bray School students or enslavers, still in the Williamsburg area. These interactions provide unique insights not found in traditional historical records, thereby expanding our ability to share the unfiltered history of the campus with its students. 

Soon, I could see the project expanding and potentially involving other minority groups on campus whether that be school-authorized cultural organizations or through the Center for Student Diversity. I hope that students across the campus will start to get a better sense of what came before them and to evoke a feeling of genuine awareness of William & Mary’s history. The Bray School Lab has become a focal point of my time at William & Mary, and I’m pleased to contribute weekly to the community that helps shape our campus today.  

Photo courtesy of Daniel Pleasant.

Daniel Pleasant is currently a Junior majoring in Government and a Student Thought Partner at the W&M Bray School Lab. He has served as a Student Thought Partner since the fall of 2022.  

Teachings at the Williamsburg Bray School

Terry L. Meyers

         With the tenement building that housed Williamsburg’s Bray School well on its way to restoration by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, people may want to know more about the education offered at the school. We know a lot about that since the correspondence between the school’s sponsors in England and its local overseers was published in John C. Van Horne’s Religious Philanthropy and Colonial Slavery in 1985.

Interior image of the Bray-Digges Building, February 2022. Photo taken by Grace Helmick.

         The education was almost wholly religious. Focused on “the principles of the Christian Religion as professed by the Church of England,” the concern was with “the Piety & spiritual Advantage of the children.” The white schoolmistress, Mrs. Ann Wager (who had taught the Burwell children at Carter’s Grove) was to “teach them those Doctrines & Principles of Religion, which are in their Nature most useful in the Course of private Life, especially such as concern Faith & good manners.”

         But the education was also indoctrination—Blacks were taught subservience, that they were to abide by God’s divinely ordained social and racial hierarchy.  Robert Carter Nicholas, Treasurer of the Royal Colony, became the principal overseer of the school and summarized what many locals thought: that it was “dangerous & impolitick to enlarge the Understandings of the Negroes, as they would probably by this Means become more impatient of their Slavery & at some future Day be more likely to rebel.”

But, Nicholas assured the Associates, their plans were “by no Means calculated to instruct the Slaves in dangerous Principles [i.e., freedom], but on the contrary. . .to reform their Manners; & by making them good Christians they would necessarily become better Servants.”  The Associates were confident in asserting (with the threat of perdition) that “the tremendous Sanctions of our Religion are more likely to make honest faithful & industrious Slaves, than those who have no fear of God.”  Instruction “in the Christian Religion” was deemed “the best Mean[s] to reconcile them to their state of Servitude.”

         An edition of sermons to the enslaved that was sent by the Associates “for the Use of the Negroe School at Williamsburgh” is clear. The Rev. Thomas Bacon assured the enslaved that God has it all in hand: “some he hath made kings and rulers, for giving laws, and keeping the rest in order; some he hath made masters and mistresses, for taking care of their children, and others that belong to them …. Some he hath made servants and slaves, to assist and work for their masters and mistresses that provide for them.”

         One of the principal skills Mrs. Wager taught was reading—necessary for the children to use in reading the Bible and religious tracts. She was to teach the children “the true Spelling of Words, make them mind their Stops [i.e. pay attention to punctuation and pacing] & endeavor to bring them to pronounce & read distinctly.” 

         But there were corollary lessons as well; to make them “more useful to their Owners,” the girls were taught “sewing knitting &c.” and “such other things as may be useful to their Owners.” The children were expected to “keep themselves clean & neat in their Cloaths”; Mrs. Wager was to attend to “the Manners & Behaviour of her Scholars & . . . discourage Idleness & suppress the beginnings of Vice, such as lying, cursing, swearing, profaning the Lord’s Day, obscene Discourse, stealing &c.”  The children were taught “to be faithful & obedient to their Masters, to be diligent in their Business & peaceable to all men.” They were “in all Things [to] set a good Example to other Negroes.”

         Whether Mrs. Wager taught writing is a contested question. Writing was a dangerous skill to teach the enslaved since they could use it to forge documents allowing them to travel freely or even to pass as free. In all the Associates’ many requests for word of the Williamsburg children’s progress and in all the reports back, writing is never mentioned. And yet almost 50 fragments of slate pencils have been found at the site of the school. The current compromise between archeologists and documentarians is that writing was “possibly” taught.

Dr. Terry Meyers in the Bray School, March 2022. Photo taken by Grace Helmick.

The school was the longest lasting and the most successful of the Virginia Bray schools. It opened in September 1760 and closed only in 1774, amid increasing tensions with England and with the death of Mrs. Wager. About 30 students a year, aged three to about 10, received an education at the school. Ideally the children were to attend for three years, but Franklin noted the children’s “Continuance at the School being short.”      Recorded across three surviving Williamsburg lists are 94 student names, at least a few of which are duplicates. Still, this is a fraction of the total number of students likely educated at the Williamsburg Bray School. That very elusive number may be as low as 200 or closer to 400. That is a discussion for another blog.   

Terry L. Meyers is Chancellor Professor of English, Emeritus, at William & Mary. This blog post is adapted from the Williamsburg Tatler (May 2023).

The Bray School Lab: Fostering Historical Imagination at William & Mary

Historical imagination is a contested subject. While many historians utilize different examples of historical imagination, I have found that the definition by David J. Staley, associate professor of history at The Ohio State University, best encompasses the historical approach I seek to define. In his book of the same name, Staley defines historical imagination as “The threshold between what historians consider to be proper, imagination-free history and the malpractice of excessive imagination, asking where the boundary between the two sits and the limits of permitted imagination for the historian.” At first glance it may seem that historical imagination has no limits, but tools like narrative restraint—the idea that historical imagination must be rooted in the archive—are supposed to provide guardrails against scholars’ incorrect reconstruction of history. Although scholars offer a well-defined methodology for historical imagination, adhering to this technique is much harder in practice.

(From left to right) Ethan Miller, Rachel Hogue, and Madeline Dort presenting at the WMSURE Conference on behalf of William & Mary’s Bray School Lab. Photo by Nicole Brown.

As an intern at the Lemon Project and a student thought partner with the Bray School Lab, I saw the scale at which the archive fails to capture the stories of enslaved African Americans in Williamsburg. For the past two years, this shortcoming has fueled my research and approach as a historian. The projects I worked on at the Bray School Lab directly reflect many of the techniques and methods I incorporated into my honors thesis. The primary project I worked on at the Bray School Lab was the Standing in the Gap project. This project focused on the period between Anne Wager’s death in 1774 and 1777, when the Bray Associates officially closed all the Bray Schools in the United States. This timeline was created to help the Lab and its stakeholders try to understand what happened to the students and their communities immediately after the school’s closing, as well as how we might understand their education beyond the classroom doors.  In my recently defended honors thesis, “Two London’s in Williamsburg: Using Historical Imagination to Reinterpret the Meaning of Reconciliation and Memorialization in the Archive, I explore this topic and expand on my experiences at the Bray School Lab and how it assisted me on my journey as a historian. 

In my thesis, I write, “The Bray [School] Lab’s use of [historical imagination] has been groundbreaking and transcends the archives into [forms] meant to inform the masses.” The Bray School Lab student project Adam & Fanny’s World, a digital map that utilizes GIS technology to make real the contours of Bray School students’ lives, is a great example of historical imagination transcending the page in a way that prioritizes Bray School scholars and descendants over the academy. Historical imagination helped me decide that it was critical to find as much as I could on the students to ensure that the descendant communities of the Williamsburg Bray School were served as best as possible. What I ultimately found was unsurprising, but still disappointing. Documents on Bray School students were scant, and the stories available existed in the context of runaway ads or through financial deeds and wills of their enslavers. However, contextual details like the 1775 smallpox outbreak, Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation, and William & Mary’s wartime measures provide details on Williamsburg during this period. 

William & Mary’s Bray School Lab Assistant Nicole Brown sharing Adam & Fanny’s World with a community member during Descendant Outreach Week. Photo by Grace Helmick.

In my research I found that war created upheaval for all institutions and a mechanism that forced tough choices for African Americans in Williamsburg and across the Virginia colony. While William & Mary faculty debated the merits of war, African American families considered Lord Dunmore’s guarantee of freedom against the inherent risks of picking a side in this nascent revolution. I relied heavily on historical imagination to accurately deconstruct what this proclamation might have looked like for enslaved African American families in Williamsburg. Some individuals enslaved by Peyton Randolph fled to the British to seek freedom, while others stayed. Historical imagination allowed me to take this example of the complicated price of freedom and apply it to the many unknown stories of enslaved individuals. We can use the Randolph example to understand that the allure of freedom was more complicated for enslaved African Americans than meets the eye. Some enslaved people in Williamsburg were clearly motivated by a force they deemed more powerful than freedom—like family.

Historical imagination has changed my approach not only as a scholar but as a thinker embarking on my next steps in the world. It encouraged me to think deeper and eschew traditional norms of the academic tradition; it showed me the power an individual has to highlight and illuminate critical stories forgotten to the archive. Leaving William & Mary as a graduate, a Bray School Lab ambassador, and an avid practitioner of historical imagination are all things I never would have anticipated four years ago, but for which I could not be more grateful.

Ethan Miller graduated from William & Mary in May 2023. He received a bachelor’s degree and majored in History.

The Past is Our Present

By Janice Canaday

The past is both comfortable and uncomfortable for all of us. What more can I tell you about the past that does not come from documents, songs, historical narratives? There is no song, no narrative that can unwrite the way that my family’s humanity was stripped from them, while also fighting back against that. Learning about our past requires us to look within and sit with the discomfort of our past. It also requires that you acknowledge my humanity as much as I acknowledge yours.

Education has always been key in the minds of the oppressor and the oppressed in shaping our stories, which in turn shape our history. The Bray School, and my family’s connections to it, are part of that ongoing story. Being colonized with education was part of the Bray School; my family’s African heritage was stripped from me through slavery. Our African traditions, education, and language systems were colonized by the very institutions that said they offered education to those who were uneducated. My ancestors were never uneducated. They just understood the power of education differently than the Associates of Dr. Bray.

Growing up in this town, it’s hard when you don’t see yourself in history. It’s equally hard when you don’t see something positive in history. How the past had been shared with me didn’t empower me. The work of retelling the Bray School, as with all Black voices in history, has to be more than a list or records that reflect violence.

Williamsburg Bray School Student List, 1762. Courtesy of the USPG Bray Associates Collection, Weston Library, University of Oxford. Photo by Nicole Brown.

How is humanity shared? How do you show the ways in which Black people challenged their world? I often wonder how the children felt in attending the Bray School: were these children seen as people at the school? How did they change the world around them because of what they experienced at school? Were they empowered in school? Did it come from somewhere else?

The story of the Bray school students is still bound to the present. Those children lived in the 18th century, but they still live in us now. To walk around and constantly be told ‘I’m intimidating’ or ‘I don’t like your body language’ is a continued reflection of the lack of feelings for me and my ancestors. My humanity is questioned in the same way it was for Bray School students. Colonization is still part of our story. This reality is so ingrained in our past that it bleeds into the present, especially for Black folks. I live with the same questions that my ancestors did at the Bray School; I look for power within the abuse of my humanity that happens to me on a daily basis.

The possibilities, both positive and negative, that lived in the Bray School students live in their descendants now. If you don’t share what the Bray School students valued about their opportunity to learn something outside of the walls in which they were enslaved, what is the point? By centering the children, we illuminate these children as people and not just as facts and figures. This also forces us to realize as people that the devaluation the students experienced is still happening with Black people, myself included.

The interpretation of the Williamsburg Bray School matters. It needs to be full and allow people to live in their fullness, rather than fragments of documents that merely show people as items on a list. I descend from these students. How they are spoken about matters, because it is a reflection of how I see my world and myself.

Interpreting historic spaces at Colonial Williamsburg has enabled me to learn more about my past, as well as who hasn’t been talked about in history (and is still not talked about). History has opened my world to ideas and possibilities I didn’t know existed as a child. When I think about coming from public school to where I am now, there was a lack of empowerment in history that motivated me to move into the history field and build self esteem. No one else will do it for you, so I did it for myself.

If we do this right – telling a truthful story about the Bray School that puts back the pieces which were removed from the story in the first place – it will draw communities. It will also show that humanity has always been part of my story, but institutions like the Bray School pushed against the humanity of my family from the beginning. If my ancestors had never stood against this, I would never have come to be.

That is a powerful story.

That is a story worth telling.

Janice Canaday. Photo by Janice Canaday.

Janice Canaday was born and raised in Williamsburg, where she also raised six children. Educated in the local public school system, Ms. Canaday has made education a centerpiece of her own life, especially as it pertains to Williamsburg’s 18th– and 19th-century African American community. A long-time employee of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Ms. Canaday currently serves as a supervisor for the Peyton Randolph House. She has also been a Museum Educator, Interpreter and Trainer and has worked with the Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute. An award-winning baker and entrepreneur, Ms. Canaday also serves on the Racial Reconciliation Committee with Historic Bruton Parish Church. She is also a member of Historic First Baptist Church of Williamsburg where she is a Trustee and serves on the History Committee.

 “Who Knows What You May Be”: Reconstructing the Lives of the Bray School Students Adam and Fanny

Our research begins with names: Adam, Fanny, Charlotte, Isaac, Hannah. Sometimes, finding the names is the end-goal of our work, requiring a needle-in-a-haystack level of attention to a historical document or an archive. In the case of the Bray School Lab’s research, however, the names are our starting points. We begin with a name and seek to find the whole person behind it. 

The Story Map that I helped develop, called Adam and Fanny’s World, depicts a day in the lives of several of the students – starting with Adam and Fanny, two children enslaved by William & Mary (known in text as The College). This project is an extension of the mission that the Lab has to share new research in exciting and innovative ways. It is free and directly available to the public, built upon the primary documents that we used as part of our research and transcription projects.  

Mary Hannah Grier working on Adam and Fanny's World. Photo by Grace Helmick
Mary Hannah Grier working on Adam and Fanny’s World, 2021. Photo by Grace Helmick.

This Story Map reimagines what the physical and social landscape of Williamsburg might have looked like to Adam, Fanny, and the other students at the School, combining it with the context of present-day memorials and landmarks. In this way, the present and the past are treated as parallel to one another, interacting at different sites around the city and directly connecting the people who live and work in Williamsburg now with those who did centuries ago. Public history encourages this kind of approach, where we can “re-people” both existing and reconstructed spaces by reading between the lines of existing documents rather than being restricted by what little direct information exists. It is our hope that you will utilize this project to reconsider what we do know about Bray School scholars and their world.

Public history allows us to breathe life into the people and places we research, going beyond the text of a historical document to get to what someone’s lived experience was like—to know how they might have seen and moved about in the world around them. This process of creatively reconstructing people themselves is easier for some historical figures than it is for others. People whose writings or materials survive – like well-known political thinkers and enslavers such as Thomas Jefferson or George Washington – tend to be less challenging to uncover. They were wealthy white men and well known by their contemporaries, a perfect recipe for importance in the historical record. For so many other people, however, their voices are either hidden behind the lines of recorded history or left out altogether. We must turn to the historical imagination to fill in the gaps.  

Nicole Brown sharing a preview of Adam and Fanny’s World during Descendant Outreach Week, 2021. Photo by Grace Helmick.

The enslaved children who attended the Bray School are accounted for largely as footnotes in the writings of the white enslavers of Williamsburg, in documents that do not give them the dignity of speaking for themselves or expressing their personalities. Pulling threads of their lived experiences out of these documents requires us to do what historian Marisa J. Fuentes calls “reading along the bias grain” of the historical record in her 2016 book, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive. This involves actively considering the ways in which the documents we are using are imbalanced and even violent in how they treat enslaved people.

To read along the bias grain, scholars start with what we know of the experiences of enslaved people in households such as those in which the Bray scholars resided. We add this information to whatever details we can glean about these students directly from primary sources, accounting for the biases of the archive and what these documents are refusing to tell us. Finally, we take those together with any other relevant first-hand accounts, putting them all into a narrative to try and capture what these children’s perspectives might have been and how they might have experienced and interacted with the world. 

The core goals of the Bray School Lab are to communicate the results of our research and analysis to the public in ways that are accessible and creative, and to share the stories of the people involved with the Bray School with empathy and honor. Adam, Fanny, and the many other students who attended the Bray School deserve to be seen as the inquisitive, shy, creative, opinionated, outspoken, determined, imperfect (and everything else) children that they may have been, not just the subjects of an advertisement or an aside in the letter of an enslaver. When we view them as the full people they were, we open up the ways in which we in the present can directly connect to the Bray School students in the past. We hope that this Story Map’s reach may extend to helping individuals and families in the many descendant communities linked with Williamsburg on their paths to connect with their own family histories. The more students we can name and the more ways we are able to connect them with the wider community, the more we will help move forward all types of historical inquiry for years to come.  

Mary Hannah Grier 

Bray School Lab Student Thought Partner, William & Mary ’22

CW Historic Trades Bindery Intern, Summer 2022

“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.