“Mapping” Pre-Revolutionary Bray Schools Across the Atlantic Coast of America, 1723-1777 

By Emma Jackson

As I concluded my summer 2023 internship with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, I began to ponder how I would continue my burgeoning passions for history creation, public history, and descendant engagement. Then, I met the director of the William & Mary Bray School Lab, who invited me to join her team as a Student Thought Partner. At the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, I began researching the Williamsburg and Fredericksburg Bray Schools, initiating my investment in 18th-century Black education and its ties to Christian colonialism. The W&M Bray School Lab allowed me to continue and expand my research, transforming it into a passionate and comprehensive project that focuses on mapping the schooling and Christianization efforts of Dr. Bray and his Associates.  

The Bray-Digges House, original structure of the Williamsburg Bray School (1760-1765). Photo courtesy of Emma Jackson.

It has been meaningful to engage with these existing histories and analyze the data in a way that accommodates for reinterpretation, as I have found that existing frameworks of analysis utilized by historical institutions and scholarship tend to glorify the efforts of Dr. Bray. Incongruities and gaps between the current historical canon and my research instigated this project and continue to drive its processes. I found it confounding and disturbing that the existing narrative of Thomas Bray and his Associates’ efforts posits them as benevolent manufacturers of educational opportunities for African American children. These children were subjugated to and degraded by theories of racial inferiority at the hand of Anglican doctrine. 

My methodological approach has been to systematically log and analyze the missionary efforts of Dr. Thomas Bray, his Associates, and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG). I catalogued this data in four main categories, including: schools and three independent categories for educational outreach: books requested, libraries sent, and missionary/catechetical education. These categories provided a scaffolding from which the data built meaning, collective memory, and histories. The Bray School children deserved more than an education that subjugated them to the furthest position of racial inferiority by entering their spiritual psyche, causing the internalization of subservience. This is why I engage in this research – to correct the narrative of the Bray School students and to honor their legacy by engaging with their descendants.  

The data paired with my analysis has revealed specific and unique insights into the 18thcentury educational opportunities presented to enslaved and free African Americans, all imbued with Anglican indoctrination. My research demonstrates that the Anglican Church, Thomas Bray and his Associates, and the SPG were heavily invested in strategically controlling and mandating the minds and religious psyche of African Americans, contributing to their erasure and/or misrepresentation in the historical canon.  

Specific evidence of indoctrination is found in the curriculum for the schools. Overwhelmingly, the lists of books provided for students were religious material, designed to instruct a young Black person exactly where their “place in life” is, according to the Anglican doctrine. By targeting one of the most vulnerable people groups – children – the Bray Associates were able to extend the effects of American slavery and colonialism to invade the space of the psyche and spirit of children. 

I owe a great debt to the Bray School Lab: for accepting me as a Student Thought Partner my senior year, for bolstering my skills of multimedia research and analysis, and for providing me the space to conduct meaningful and exciting research. Exposure to descendant engagement practices has also been impactful, as I have witnessed firsthand how the desires of the Bray School descendants drive processes of innovation at the Lab.  

The W&M Bray School Lab has offered me the tools and vocabulary required to practice restorative history. This opportunity has provided me with a path, through which I can channel my passion for unveiling true histories, confronting the current historical narrative, and engaging with descendant communities. Although the stories of the American Bray Schools are grim at times, I have learned the importance of positioning these students as actors and agents in their own story. These students grasped hold of the reading skills they were taught, albeit most material was wholly concentrated in religion, and multiplied their knowledge among their communities. In this way, these students transformed what was meant to subdue them into a method for racial uplift and community building.  

The longevity of my work inspires me, as I trust the Bray School Lab to continue this research even when I am gone. The structure of my project allows for future partners to build upon it, with the intent of further corrective historical research. I am forever grateful that I joined the W&M Bray School Lab; it has transformed my ideas of public history, descendant engagement, and research processes required to engage with the public/descendants.  

Emma Jackson at the 2024 Charles Center Research Symposium. Photo Courtesy of Emma Jackson.

Emma Jackson is currently a senior majoring in Anthropology and Art History and has served as a Student Thought Partner at the W&M Bray School Lab since the Fall of 2023.  

Making the Crooked Places Straight

By Olivia Blackshire

Under the shade trees of Nassau Street lies a treasure hidden in plain sight. A diamond in the rough of Colonial Williamsburg’s (CW) exhibitions, the African American Baptist Meetinghouse Exhibit holds a very special place in my heart. Usually, my travels up and down this living history museum end with me feeling like a walking anomaly (or, on a good day, the last Black unicorn). As one of the few college students of color coming to CW for leisure and learning, I constantly walk the line between curiosity and discomfort as I struggle to find my place within the narrative. Still, the Meetinghouse provides space to understand race, religion, and resilience in its colonial context. Its dedication to nuanced perspectives on the African American experience keeps me coming back. So, imagine my surprise when I myself would have the pleasure of researching the very same topics in the W&M Bray School Lab.  

Studying religious education was never in the cards for me. I knew this opportunity would be another chance at engaging hands-on history, and it has; my transcription work on the Bray School Records Project, where the goal is making all the Bray Associate’s Virginia correspondence digitally accessible for public consumption, has made me well-versed in detailing every jot and tittle of a letter writer’s idiosyncrasies. I’ve gained a close friend in the Oxford English dictionary when tracking definitions for words lost in time, picked up the art of abbreviation, and am continuously reminded of the importance of context clues when discerning an author’s intent. But somehow, I thought the scope of my research would only extend as far as knowing the school’s direction and management—the attendance, trades learned, and who wanted the children there.  

Olivia Blackshire presenting at the William & Mary Bray School Lab Slate Seminar, 2023. Photo Courtesy of Grace Helmick and the William & Mary Bray School Lab.

It turns out the religious aspects are deeper than shipments of Bibles or prayer books lost in the mail. And as many references there are to reverends, clergy members, doctrine, and soul-saving, I have no choice but to read for a context much greater than maintenance! Between the lines, the school’s propagation of the Christian gospel revolved around mixed (and often contradictory) motivations. On one hand, religious re-education was afoot; the Bible was not only a tool for literacy but a means of exerting control. As the foundation of the scholars’ training, the text was thought by the Williamsburg’s Bray School Trustees to have a “direct Tendency to reform their Manners,” making them good Christians and even better servants. Furthermore, there are numerous instances where men of the cloth, such as Rev. James Mayre, Rev. Jonathan Boucher, and Rev. Alexander Rhonnald, describe the Black population as incapable of learning English or core tenets of the faith, a “poor” and “unfortunate” lot who are “very dull and stupid,” displaying a total lack of respect for their capabilities. Yet the same ministers’ boast of conducting numerous Black baptisms, converting the enslaved on a diluted gospel while praising their church attendance and levels of understanding (If you’d like to see more of these texts, feel free to dive into our research portal!). A scholar’s soul only mattered when it was beneficial to them. With the constant back-and-forth between spiritual transformation and quotas to fill, it leaves one to wonder whether the messaging the scholars received was ever biblical at all.  

But a chain-loving gospel wasn’t the promised land Black folk had in mind. Pliable as the Associates believed them to be, religious assimilation could never drown dreams of liberation. Like Dr. Antonio Bly says in his article “’Reed Though the Bybell’: Slave Education in Early Virginia,” I’m convinced “[t]hey, too, held within their breast the same natural rights their masters claimed for themselves.” What was meant to oppress could find other uses in religious resistance and gives us room to imagine the possibilities. With an analogical approach, the enslaved could claim stories (like the Exodus account) of earthly and spiritual freedom for themselves, as if it proved a divine declaration of their inherent value. But different faiths were practiced in secret, too. What if the language barriers or lack of comprehension was not incompetence but a willful ignorance safeguarding family wisdom? Or resistance towards an oppressive misuse of scriptures? Whatever the reason, observing such convictions asserts a dangerous dignity challenging upsetting norms in colonial Christianity. 

Just like the Meetinghouse, the history of the Williamsburg Bray School holds a complex web of narratives waiting to be told. In this unexpected collision of research and religion, I can only hope my work continues to unravel intersections of race, spirituality, education, and culture, even beyond the colonial era. If we remove the scales from our eyes, slowly, surely, we can build connections to the past to see wounds we’ve left unchecked. And whether it’s descendant engagement, unpacking Sunday segregation, or going on a casual walk through CW, recognizing and responding to misunderstandings nourishes clarity for such topics. The Williamsburg Bray School scholars cry out in the wilderness! Their wisdom, strength, and resilience tell me I’m more than a quota – I belong.  

Olivia Blackshire in front of the African American Baptist Meetinghouse Exhibit at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2023. Photo courtesy of Olivia Blackshire.

Olivia Blackshire is a junior at William & Mary, as well as a Student Thought Partner and Lemon Project intern studying History and Anthropology. Her email is oblackshire@wm.edu.

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.

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 tmerideth@wm.edu.

“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