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.
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.
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.