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.

Building the Williamsburg Bray School Annotated Bibliography

While the Williamsburg Bray School (1760-1774) was active two and a half centuries ago, educational experiences can be surprisingly universal, whether that be parents’ frustrations with school administration, discrimination from teachers, or interactions among fellow students. Looking at education in Williamsburg both past and present leads to reflections on the Bray School and its operations. Sources that exist about the Bray School are not written by students themselves, and we are often left to guess exactly what their thoughts and feelings were, as well as what everyday life at school looked like. As I listened to oral histories from the Williamsburg Documentary Project, and I reflected on my own educational experiences, it’s clear that while education in Williamsburg has changed significantly since the Bray School, certain aspects of education remain timeless.

In addition to completing research at the Bray School Lab, I am also a student assistant in William & Mary’s Special Collections in Swem Library. In this position, I’ve encountered several people who have asked questions about the Bray School and the materials that William & Mary has related to the school. Evidently, this is an interesting topic for both members of the public and the scholarly community. William & Mary’s holdings of Williamsburg Bray School records are not always what people are expecting, especially considering that we do not hold the original documents connected to the school. This was one reason I started to work in the Lab to create an annotated bibliography, which compiles a variety of sources that focus on the history of African American education in Williamsburg, tracing the history of not only the Bray School, but how educational systems have evolved.

Cecilia Weaver works in the Bray School Lab. Photo by Grace Helmick.

When we think of records, we often imagine written documents, but historical sources are much richer than just the written record. Because of discrepancies in literacy and the colonial nature of archives, it is important to value other mediums as much as these traditional sources. Within the Bray School annotated bibliography, oral histories provided a valuable perspective, and the possibilities for sources go much further beyond as well, including archaeology and examining archival silence. The variety of sources in the annotated bibliography is something that I found rewarding to annotate, and this variety is also important for a public-facing historical bibliography. I found it interesting to listen to oral histories in William & Mary’s collections that connect to different experiences people had with desegregating Williamsburg public schools, as well as the effect of Colonial Williamsburg’s reconstruction on African American education. With the variety of experiences and the depth of each interview, it was difficult to narrow down the whole collection to only three representative interviews for the annotated bibliography.

Listening to these oral history interviews allowed the personalities of the narrators to shine through, especially when multiple people were interviewed at once. Listening to the James City Training School story circle, I felt like I was in the room with this group of people. Usually, oral histories involve one narrator and one interviewer, but this interview involved a group of three people in conversation with each other. They reminisced about student activities and organizations, and they provided a vivid image of the James City Training School’s layout. These former students also discussed topics like integration and relations with the nearby Matthew Whaley School, as well as losing their school as a result of the expansion of Colonial Williamsburg. It is vital to preserve these perspectives in order to provide a more holistic picture of Williamsburg’s history in the context of the Bray School and beyond.

Students from Matthew Whaley Elementary School display signs with the names of Bray School students during the February 10, 2023 move of the Bray School building from William & Mary’s campus to Colonial Williamsburg. Photo by Grace Helmick.

Another vital piece of this bibliography is its accessibility; all the sources included are accessible either online or through Swem Library. Swem Library is open to both students and the public, so anyone who is interested in learning about the Williamsburg Bray School can visit the library and have access to all of these sources. For those who may be more geographically removed, the bibliography also includes several links to online sources, allowing them to still have a comprehensive look at the Williamsburg Bray School.

No source exists in isolation, which is why understanding history from various time periods and sources is incredibly vital to historical research. In research regarding minority groups, traditional written sources may be few and far between, especially those written by community members themselves. Therefore, it is vital to approach this research from all angles, including so-called non-traditional sources like oral histories or stories that were recorded well after an event occurred. Reflecting on how education has evolved, I would encourage everyone to consider how their educational experiences may have been similar to those of students at the Bray School. Understanding some of those daily feelings may help fill in the blanks about what their experiences were like, and unexpected sources can help to facilitate these reflections.

Cecilia Weaver ’24

Girlhoods Intertwined: Female Education and Slavery in Eighteenth-Century Williamsburg

By Emily Wells

In 1762, a seven-year-old girl named Mary entered the Bray School in Williamsburg. The Associates of Dr. Bray hoped that this new institution would train Black students to be good Christians, obedient slaves, and skilled laborers. However, students could choose to apply their instruction in ways that did not fulfill the needs or prerogatives of their enslavers. Whether her time at the Bray School proved limiting or liberating, Mary returned each day to the home of her enslaver, Court Clerk Thomas Everard. There, she lived alongside his daughters, Frances and Martha Everard, who were also learning to take their place in society. The histories of Mary, Frances, and Martha are intertwined; rather than untangle the threads, it can be instructive to observe how and where they overlap.

As a student at the Bray School, Mary would have received instruction in reading, needlework, and “the Principles of the Christian Religion.” In the school’s regulations, the Associates expressed their hope that these subjects would help students become more useful and obedient to their enslavers. For example, they emphasized the importance of teaching students “Parts of the Holy Scripture” in which “Christians are commanded to be faithful & obedient to their Masters.” They encouraged enslavers to reinforce this message by “[catechizing] the Children at Home” and setting “good Examples of a sober & religious Behaviour.” Girls like Mary learned additional practical skills, such as “knitting sewing & such other Things as may be useful to their Owners.” Finally, the Associates hoped that all students would “instruct their Fellow Slaves at Home,” thus furthering the school’s mission.

At seven years old, Mary would have been old enough to learn the fundamentals of reading and needlework. Although it is unlikely that she learned to write, she may have stitched letters onto a sampler. A sampler produced by an eight-year-old girl at the Philadelphia Bray School in 1793 shows how this medium combined stitching and literacy.  

Like Mary, Frances and Martha would have also learned to read and sew, likely producing samplers of their own. Unlike Mary, however, their instructors would have expected them to apply these skills, not as laborers, but as managers of domestic property. Although there are no documents that describe the particulars of their instruction, the sisters would have almost certainly cultivated the practical skills necessary to manage a household, including needlework, reading, writing, and arithmetic. They may have also studied subjects reserved for genteel young ladies including dancing and music. Frances and Martha likely took lessons at home under the direction of their mother or private tutors. They may have also taken lessons from local instructors, such as Mrs. Walker who in 1752 taught “young Ladies all Kinds of Needle Work.”

The genteel education that Frances and Martha received would have been of immediate use after their mother died in the late 1750s or early 1760s. After her death, the girls would have likely assisted their father in managing their household. As the elder sister, Frances would have taken on most of this responsibility, helping her father to manage the goods that circulated through the house and directing the labor of enslaved servants.

In 1762, the same year that Mary entered the Bray School, a teenaged Frances took on the role of enslaver as well as household manager. That year, Frances received a girl named Beck as a bequest from her maternal grandmother. When Frances married three years later, Beck likely travelled with her to her new home, forcing her to once again acclimate to a new environment. For Frances, this bequest represented a distribution of family wealth as well as a continuation of her education. While Mary was learning to be a better slave, Frances was learning to be an enslaver.

To better understand the significance of the Bray School, it is important to consider its place within the broader educational landscape of eighteenth-century Virginia. The educational norms and prerogatives that determined each girl’s instruction emanated from a common source: the desire to maintain and perpetuate the institution of slavery. However, girls also had the ability to push against these constraints when it suited them. Although Mary learned skills that would have made her more “useful” to her enslavers, her instruction would have also empowered her to provide for herself and her community. If Mary grew into adulthood, she could have used her needlework skills to provide herself with a small income and ensure that she and her loved ones remained clothed and warm. The relationships she formed with other students may have persevered into adulthood, providing her with additional community protection and support. While we do not know what became of Mary, it is important to consider these possibilities, to see where she might have plucked the thread of her own life from the pattern laid out before her.

Emily Wells is a graduate student in History at William & Mary. She began research on this topic as a Mellon Curatorial Intern at Colonial Williamsburg and would like to thank Kimberly Smith Ivey, Senior Curator of Textiles at Colonial Williamsburg, for her support and guidance.

For more on needlework in eighteenth-century Williamsburg, see Kimberly Smith Ivey, In the Neatest Manner: The Making of the Virginia Sampler Tradition (Curious Works Press and The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1997). For more on Mary D’Silver’s sampler, see Kelli Racine Coles, “Schoolgirl Embroideries & Black Girlhood in Antebellum Philadelphia,” Hidden Stories/Human Lives: Proceedings of the Textile Society of America 17th Biennial Symposium, October 15-17, 2020.

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.

The Past Speaks: Capturing the Legacy of the Bray School Through Oral Histories

Oral historians preserve the past by documenting the voices and memories of people who have a shared history. Descendants of the Williamsburg Bray School share a legacy that began in a small white cottage more than two hundred and sixty years ago. As Oral Historian for the William & Mary Bray School Lab, I am working to preserve that legacy by capturing oral histories of the descendant community members, as well as the archaeologists, architects, historians, and students working on the project.     

I learned about the Bray School during my first visit to Williamsburg in 2013, and eagerly began to search for more information. On my second visit, later that same year, I located the building on the William & Mary campus long rumored to be the Bray School, and reached out to touch the building where, at one time, enslaved children were taught to read. It inspired me to pursue my master’s degree in history with the hope of one day being a part of the Bray School project. While I pursued my degree, I had the opportunity to work as an intern under the oral historian for the African American Library at the Gregory School in Houston, Texas. I participated in several projects in Houston’s historic Fourth Ward, including the Gregory School, Olivewood Cemetery, and the Rutherford B. H. Yates Museum. As part of my research, I interviewed members of the descendant community and collected oral histories and traditions of their ancestors handed down from generation to generation.

Bray School building, January 2023. Photo by Grace Helmick.

Imagine my sense of elation when in 2021 I heard that dendrochronology testing had confirmed that the building on Prince George Street was, indeed, the Bray School. That confirmation changed the trajectory of my career. After finishing my degree, I moved to Williamsburg and started working as a historic interpreter with Colonial Williamsburg. I learned about the world the students lived in as members of an enslaved community and I immersed myself in the culture of the African American community here in Williamsburg. Listening to oral histories and engaging with the interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg has informed the research I will use as an oral historian to document the legacy of the Bray School students.

To guide me in these efforts, I will be utilizing a very important tool, a rubric of best practices designed to assist teachers and public historians when working with descendant communities.  “Engaging Descendant Communities” is a collaboration between scholars of African and African American history together with descendant community members that will help historians and museums successfully engage with descendant communities who for years have been overlooked or tokenized when historic sites related to them were being recognized. The rubric puts emphasis on the important part the descendant community should play in recognizing historic sites that involve their ancestors while discussing the three pillars upon which to build descendant engagement: historical research, relationship building and interpretation. These pillars are essential in making sure that descendant communities do not feel ignored or erased, and that the truth about slavery and its impact on society can be realized but never repeated.

Trying to recover the history of those who left no written record sometimes can feel like a formidable task, leaving some historians to forego any attempts to do so. However, in his work, Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War, historian Vincent Brown writes that “As surely as wind and water change the contours of stone, slavery’s archival sources have been shaped by the black people they rarely describe. Reading these records both against the grain, to investigate things the sources never meant to illustrate, and along the grain, to note how they constrain and shape our knowledge, we can tell plausible stories about the aspirations and strivings of the enslaved.” My objective is to use the archives but also the oral histories as a source to shape our knowledge of the lives of the Bray students through their descendants.

Tonia at work in the Lab. Photo by Grace Helmick.

Recently, I learned through genealogical research that I am a member of the descendant community. I am inspired by the words, “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams.” Never could these children have imagined, as they looked out the rear window of the school and saw the Wren building in the backdrop, that their descendants would one day attend William & Mary and contribute to its diversity and equity as community members of the town that once enslaved them. Through my work, I hope to inspire other members to learn more about their ancestors and actively participate in educating others about the history of the Williamsburg Bray School.

Tonia Cansler Merideth joined the Office of Strategic Cultural Partnerships as Oral Historian for the Bray School Lab in December 2022. Her email is

“Take Particular Care of Manners and Behaviour:” The Rules of the Williamsburg Bray School

It was dusk as I walked down Prince George Street, my partner and I enjoying a double scoop of Kilwins ice cream. As we passed the Bray-Digges House, the first home of the Williamsburg Bray School for enslaved and free Black children, we came across another couple standing in front of the building’s security fence. They were reading a sign concerning the research and archeological work being done under the partnership between William & Mary and The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation to research, relocate, and restore the Bray School. Thrilled, I rushed up to the pair and explained that I am a student volunteer involved in the project. It was simply the most exciting opportunity to discuss my experience and to express just how important the work being done by various volunteers, scholars, preservationists, and archeologists is to the understanding of our collective past.

Bray School Lab student thought partners working at Travis House. (Left to right) Rachel Hogue, Madeline Dort, Emily Knoeppel, and Mary Hannah Grier. Photo by Grace Helmick.

At the William & Mary Bray School Lab, I have been given the task of transcribing various primary documents, especially trustee letters and class lists, concerning the Bray Associates and the broader school system. Primarily I ensured that Transkribus, the AI software employed in reading documents, correctly captured and deciphered the authors’ handwriting and produced an accurate transcription. In the future, these transcriptions will be made available digitally to allow broad public access.

This transcription work is allowing us to study more closely the administrators and students involved with the Bray School. I have looked at and worked most closely with several documents concerning the rules of the Bray School, written by two early trustees, Reverend Thomas Dawson (ca. 1715-1760) and William Hunter (d. 1761). Thomas Dawson was the rector of Bruton Parish and president of the College of William & Mary; William Hunter was the colony’s official printer and publisher of the Virginia Gazette. These two men cemented the foundation for the Williamsburg Bray School and secured its opening on September 29, 1760. Ann Wager (ca. 1716–1774), the school’s sole teacher, was accountable for instructing the likely 300 to 400 children that came in her door between 1760 and 1774.

Image of 1762 Williamsburg Bray School final rules list.
Courtesy of the USPG Bray Associates Collection, Weston Library, University of Oxford. 
Photo by Nicole Brown.

Notably, the draft of school rules begins by ensuring that the students’ owners attend to keeping them “clean wash’d & combed.” This suggests that enslavers did not always keep Black children in a state of cleanliness. But the rule raises another question. Are Dawson and Hunter suggesting that cleanliness is not about hygiene, but rather a signifier of race or whiteness? If so, are they already drawing lines between the students and the whole of the white population by including such an assumption?

Dawson and Hunter continued, “Negroes be not condemned in their Faults, or their Teacher discouraged in the Performance of her Duty.” Seemingly more empathetic, Dawson and Hunter proposed that the students not be criticized for mistakes they may make in the classroom. By extension, Ann Wager should not be discouraged when efforts fail due to what they considered biological difference. Another rule expounds on this instruction with a list of behaviors to watch for: “they [Wager] take particular Care of the Manners and Behaviour of the Negroes, and by all proper / Methods discourage Idleness, and suppress the Beginnings of Vice; such as Lying, Cursing, Swearing, profaning the Lords-Day, obscene Discourse, Stealing.”

Together, the rules suggest that with proper adherence to “Religious Behaviour,” “both Master and Servant may be better inform’d of their Duty.” Through an appropriate understanding of the “Blessing of God,” as taught in their schools, Black children and white adults would be coworkers in maintaining and securing Virginia’s eighteenth-century slave society. They propose that Williamsburg’s “faulted” Black community may be more “civilized” and more useful when given a proper religious education. To be sure, many of the written rules naturally involve the students’ and the mistress’ religious commitment, but also include practical instructions such as what time school sessions should be held and Ann Wager’s salary (“£16 Sterling, or any sum not exceeding £20 Sterling. Per Ann”).

As a fourth-year Education student, I felt incredibly enlightened while reading these documents. I aspire to teach secondary education English Literature, and looking at these rules through the lens of my own experience, I feel a connection to fellow educator Ann Wager and to the students. I believe that I have taken away a critical knowledge of the eighteenth-century educational system and have also established a greater awareness of the systemic inequality and disparity that continues to weaken what is meant to be a central pillar of American democracy: public education for all. And, yes, while my exposure to these documents and correspondence has been at times disturbing, particularly as the language employed is fraught with racist terminology and meaning, recognizing these items is key in forming a progressive and inclusive American history–history I intend to share as a future educator. Indeed, I trust my work with the Bray School Lab will serve as illuminating material for generations to come.

Madeline Dort ’23

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. Students are some of our best idea generators. Students are incredible thought partners. Not only do they have enviable amounts of energy, but they also have amazing insight and imagination. As Bray School Lab Director, I love being a fly on the wall listening to students ask questions, posit theories, recommit to the research, and share with each other. They do not leave the same way we found them. And they often do not want to leave. Despite moving out of state, studying abroad, or graduating, student thought partners have consistently desired to remain connected with our work. I believe this is a barometer of the intellectual culture that is William & Mary, but I know this is also about the pull of the Williamsburg Bray School story and the more than 80 Black children that we know, to date, passed through.

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


 “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

“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.

“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.