Established in 1760, the Williamsburg Bray School is likely the oldest extant building dedicated to the education of Black children in the United States.

Maureen Elgersman Lee
Maureen Elgersman Lee (Photo by Grace Helmick)

After years of research, the building that once held the school was identified in 2021 on the William & Mary campus. Following that discovery, the Bray School Initiative was formed as a partnership between Colonial Williamsburg and William & Mary to preserve and interpret the building.

As part of that initiative, the Williamsburg Bray School Lab was launched to research, document and disseminate the history and the legacy of the Williamsburg Bray School. That work includes identifying descendants of the original Bray School students.

On Friday, the Bray-Digges House will be relocated to Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area where it will continue to be restored. In anticipation of that event, W&M News spoke with Maureen Elgersman Lee, director of the Bray School Lab and Mellon Engagement Coordinator for African American Heritage, about the lab and its work.

Q: What has the lab’s research uncovered thus far about the Bray School and its students? How about its founders?

A: From our website: “Williamsburg’s Bray School was established in 1760 by The Associates of Dr. Bray, an Anglican charity based in England, at the recommendation of Benjamin Franklin and with support from William & Mary’s president and rector of Bruton Parish Church, Reverend Thomas Dawson. During the School’s operation (1760-1774), its sole teacher, Ann Wager, educated 300 to 400 free and enslaved African American children. The school’s faith-based curriculum justified slavery; yet their practice of literacy seeded agency. The Bray School’s origins and mission provide a unique perspective on the role of religion, philanthropy, and education in both perpetuating slavery and attempting to address its consequences.”

We used published and unpublished information to craft a general history of the school and an increasingly robust website. We have studied the students, who sit at the heart of this history, and we have rewritten the 1762, 1765 and 1769 lists as one integrated genealogical document that presents students as members of households, thereby connecting them to the past and the present simultaneously. We also continue to extend a record of outreach, research productivity and programming.

Q: Why is the history of the Bray School and its students important not just locally, but on a broader scale?

A: The history of the Williamsburg Bray School is important for various reasons:

  • It places the history of Black children at the center of the narrative of Williamsburg’s colonial past. This is a significant shift and allows us to look at local and national history through a very different lens that sits at the intersection of race, gender, class, age and place.
  • It helps us tell a more complete and more inclusive story, not only about Williamsburg, but about race, religion and enslavement in the colonial United States. When we push the boundaries of the story further, out to the Bray Associates’ work in Canada and the Caribbean, we have a Diaspora story that centers on Black education and Black resilience.
  • It tells us that the history of Black education in the United States is deep and rich — but also complicated. The Williamsburg Bray School, like other Bray Schools established in the colonial period, accepted slavery as the primary condition for Blacks. Rather than challenge or dismantle slavery, the school, as an educational enterprise, worked within the structure of slavery to convert Black children to the Anglican faith and better prepare them for their place in Virginia slave society.

Q: What role do W&M students have in the lab’s work?

A: William & Mary students are essential thought partners in the work of the Bray School Lab.  Each semester and during the summer, undergraduate and graduate students collaborate with is a variety of ways to serve the larger mission of uncovering, studying, preserving and disseminating the Bray School’s history. They are working on primary document transcription, digital mapping, blog writing, historical timelines and serving as Bray School Lab ambassadors to their peers across the W&M campus.

Bray School building
The Williamsburg Bray School, also known as the Dudley Digges House, is shown in its location on Prince George Street on the William & Mary campus. (Archival photo)

Q: Can you tell us about the lab’s work to identify descendants of the Bray School students? Why is identifying them important?

A: The lab is deeply committed and engaged in the work of identifying and connecting with descendants of Bray School students. There are more than 80 different students identified by name across three known student lists (1762, 1765, 1769). For most students, we only have a first name and the name of their enslaver. For a few students, we have first and last names. So, we must work to make these children real, if you will. Through continued archival and genealogical research, oral history and expanded community collaboration we can find out more about the lives of these children and tell their stories with equal parts dignity and rigor.

Q: How will the relocation of the Bray School potentially advance the work of the lab?

A: I am so excited that we are at the point of relocating — or re-siting — the Williamsburg Bray School. This moment represents a key milestone in the work of the Initiative to study, prepare and move the building to its permanent home in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area. What I am equally excited about is the fact that this building will have even greater capacity to capture the public’s imagination and encourage university-community collaboration in the interest of researching and sharing broadly — and with compassion — the Bray School’s history as an educational enterprise and its legacies for the community. The building is a physical touchstone that helps bring the history of the school and of its students to life.

Q: How many descendants have been identified to date, and how are they helping with the lab’s work?

A: We are continuing our work to build a community of engagement around the Bray School building, the school’s history and its legacies. We are working to foster a community of descendants that fosters engagement with us but, perhaps more importantly, with each other. In a more tangible way, descendants are sharing their voices by writing blogs, partnering on book project, advising on our work and helping us to connect to descendants. Each descendant has their own relationship with this history, and we respect that.

Q: How can the community — including people who think they may be descendants — help with the research? Any call to action for the community?

A: Yes, we can use the idea of a call to action, but I like also to think of this is as a call to      partner. First, we encourage people to see this history as their history. Second, we ask        anyone who engages with this history or equates the Bray School history with their own          family history in some way to reach out to the lab. We would like to find the best ways to partner in uncovering, preserving and sharing this important history.

A two-story building with some of the siding removed
The Williamsburg Bray School building after the 20th century wings were removed to return it to its original structure in October 2022. (Photo by Brendan Sostak, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

Q: Can you tell us about the Bray School book project?

A: As another dimension of the Bray School Initiative, we have partnered with The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation to publish a book on the Williamsburg Bray School that centers community voices around seven archival letters that articulate key moments in the            founding, operation and closing of the Bray School. What we hope to have is a rich             collection of written reflections from community members and others connected to Bray            School research and preservation. The working title is “The Williamsburg Bray School Letters: A Community Speaks.” We still have a few spaces for community members, so we would love to hear from other people who may be interested in contributing.

Q: How does the work of the lab intersect with the work of The Lemon Project? 

A: In general, both the Bray School Lab and The Lemon Project are committed to telling a truer, more complete story of Black lives and legacies. The Lemon Project focuses “on contributing to and encouraging scholarship on the 300-year relationship between African Americans and William & Mary, and building bridges between the university and Williamsburg and Greater Tidewater area.”  The operational history of the Bray School lasts a mere 14 years in comparison, but where the Bray School Lab and The Lemon Project meet is in the history and legacies of enslavement and the administration of the Bray School. William & Mary (known as “The College” in the 1769 student list) sent two children that it owned, Adam and Fanny, to the Bray School. William & Mary presidents also personally sent children to the school and helped in its administration. Both the lab and The Lemon Project are also both committed to best practices in oral history, genealogical research and community engagement.

Q: How does the university’s partnership with CW help with the work of the lab?

A: The lab was created as a key component of the Williamsburg Bray School Initiative, the innovative partnership between William & Mary and The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. We have the shared goal of uncovering, documenting, preserving and disseminating the history and legacy of the Williamsburg Bray School.

We are able to employ the assets of both institutions in service of the greater goals of the Initiative. Some student thought partners, for example, have worked in the Bray School Lab and have interned at Colonial Williamsburg. Students benefit from what they have learned in both places while, in turn, making real contributions to both partners.

Q: What do you still hope to discover?

A: Wow. How long do you have? We want to understand as much as possible about the lived experiences of the Bray School students as they attended school and learned from the curriculum that was the basis for the Bray Schools more broadly. We want to understand their lives in their respective households and in the spaces between home and school. Ultimately, we hope to find out what became of each student whose name we know currently, even as we hope to find others.

Some driving questions include:

What do we know about the Bray School and how do we know it? What do we need to know and how might we find it?

How can we best serve the descendants of Bray School students and others directly connected to its history? What does the Bray School mean for the broader African American community of the 18th century? Of the 21st century?  

What can we find out about their lives after the school closed in 1774? What was the trajectory of the free children who attended the school? Did the enslaved students become free — whether through their own actions or the actions of others? What are the Bray School’s historical echoes throughout this community, this region and even the nation? How do the Bray School descendants connect with other local descendant communities like The Reservation or early Black churches, for example?

Can we connect Bray School attendance to Black civil or religious leadership? How should we connect the Bray School to the larger history of Black education, both informal and formal? How do we construct a Bray School/Rosenwald School/Historically Black College and University continuum? 

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

, University News & Media