In a place like Williamsburg where so much time is devoted to exploring history, it’s not every day that a new historical discovery is made.
But that was just the case about 20 months ago when, after years of research, the siding was peeled off of a building on the William & Mary campus, leading to its confirmation as the 18th-century Williamsburg Bray School – the oldest extant building dedicated to the education of Black children in the United States.
With that discovery came the realization that there are many yet to be made about the school, its students and their part in the formation of the United States – discoveries that will one day lead to a fuller understanding of America’s history.
Hand in hand on Friday afternoon, the leaders of Williamsburg’s largest institutions – William & Mary, Colonial Williamsburg and the City of Williamsburg – vowed to continue working together to uncover those stories and preserve the building where they occurred.
“If you want to know what it looks like for the whole to become more than the sum of our parts: Here we are, realizing more than we could have possibly achieved separately,” said William & Mary President Katherine A. Rowe. “These research partnerships in Williamsburg are making Virginia the most compelling site of new stories of revolution – stories that unite us in the path up to the U.S. 250th (anniversary of the Declaration of Independence). These stories showcase the power of education and faith to advance liberty, to empower those who persevered in the face of enslavement and injustice.”
Rowe spoke to a crowd of hundreds gathered on the lawn of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg for the Williamsburg Bray School Preservation Launch. Along with Rowe, speakers at the event included Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin; Williamsburg Mayor Doug Pons; Cliff Fleet ’91, M.A. ’93, J.D. ’95, M.B.A. ’95, president and CEO of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation; and Maureen Elgersman Lee, director of the Bray School Lab and Mellon Engagement Coordinator for African American Heritage.
The event also included a reading of the names of children who were known to be students in the Bray School and a song about working together in unity.
“So many of the fundamental concepts of our nation were nurtured right here, and I know firsthand that when Williamsburg’s three pillar institutions – the city, William & Mary and Colonial Williamsburg – work together, it is a powerful collaboration,” said Pons. “The values of public service, of scholarship, of continued learning, of liberty and equality are all deep-seated in this community. We may have many differences between us, but we are a community that is united in countless ways.”
Windows to the past
The Williamsburg Bray School was established in 1760 to educate free and enslaved Black children. It closed after 14 years of operation, and the building that held it was eventually lost to history. The building’s identity was rediscovered about 20 months ago after years of research started by Chancellor Professor Emeritus of English Terry Meyers led archaeological and architectural experts to the Bray-Digges House on the William & Mary campus.
On Friday morning, the building was relocated to a lot in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area where it will be preserved and interpreted. It will be the 89th original structure restored by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and is located next to an excavation of a previous site for the First Baptist Church of Williamsburg, which was founded by free and enslaved Black people and was one of America’s earliest Black congregations.
Hundreds lined the streets in Williamsburg to watch the Bray School’s slow and methodical move, which was executed by Expert House Movers – a company that has moved such structures as the Hatteras lighthouse.
Sitting on a trailer in its new location, the Williamsburg Bray School building served as the backdrop for the preservation launch event. Fleet said it had been “hidden in plain sight” for many years, but now it is offering us “windows into the past.”
“It’s how we use those windows that helps us illuminate the present day,” he said. “This building of course, was used to educate children, enslaved children. And so it offers us an opportunity to study the intersection of race and religion and education and what it meant to the development of our society right after the Great Awakening and on the eve of the Revolution of the United States. That will offer us powerful lessons about what it says about us as a nation and as a people today.
“But it also offers us the opportunity to lift up voices that for too long went unheard. The children educated in this building contributed to the birth and the growth of this nation. And we need to elevate those voices and explore those histories to understand the contributions that they had to the formation and growth of Williamsburg, the Commonwealth and the nation.”
William & Mary’s Bray Lab is playing a major role in uncovering the stories of those children. Established as part of the Strategic Cultural Partnerships division under the leadership of Ann Marie Stock, and contributing to the Williamsburg Bray School Initiative – a partnership between William & Mary and Colonial Williamsburg – the lab is dedicated to researching, documenting and disseminating the history of the school.
“At the William & Mary Bay School Lab, we are actively working to uncover the names of all students to understand their lives and to connect with as many descendants as possible,” said Elgersman Lee.
Right now, researchers estimate around 300-400 students attended the Bray School during its 14 years of operation. So far, a total of six descendants have been identified including one who is working for the Bray School Lab as an oral historian.
Elgersman Lee said that while the Bray School gave students the title of scholar and taught them the tenets of the Anglican faith, they also learned to read.
“And with this, their worlds opened up,” she said.
Knowledge remains transformational today, said Youngkin.
“We have the responsibility however to ensure that future generations receive a world-class education in our classrooms and serve to inspire generations of learners with the curiosity and passion to tackle the challenges that face America right now and in the decades to come,” he said. “That begins with intellectual rigor, intellectual truth and academic excellence.
“We must teach all of our history – all of it, the good and the bad. We must expand our understanding of our rich heritage and forge together a better future through education.”
Erin Jay, Senior Associate Director of University News