Historic Bray School for Black students moves to Colonial Williamsburg
The Williamsburg Bray School primarily educated enslaved students and operated from 1760 to 1774. The structure wasn’t formally identified until 2021.
It’s an odd sight for the College of William & Mary’s campus: An old house with white siding is being pulled by a semi-truck down a narrow Williamsburg street. A crowd’s gathered on Friday to watch, sipping coffee and chatting excitedly. A sleepy beagle named Ralphie lounges.
Eileen Dinn, a W&M undergraduate student, looks down at the crowd from her friends’ balcony across the street. They’ve watched the building go from an often-ignored structure to one now seen as a significant piece of history: the Williamsburg Bray School
In 2021, historians identified it and said the building might be the oldest standing school for Black children in America.
“This school has really spread the message about the history of the house a lot … and it’s been really cool to watch the response,” Dinn said as the teal tractor trailer rumbled by, drones buzzed and the crowd chatted.
Now, the school and Colonial Williamsburg Foundation are moving it to the living-history museum’s grounds.
Workers trimmed trees to ensure the campus’ oaks and magnolias didn’t harm the building, especially its 250-year-old chimney.
Officials at both the college and Colonial Williamsburg are reorienting how they teach the history of slavery in America — and in the case of William & Mary, how slavery enriched the institution.
Loni Wright, who graduated from the school in 2021, said that as a student, the Bray School was often discussed by some but was ignored or invisible to others.
“I was excited to see a resurgence of, I guess, interest around it, because it's something that we didn't really talk about — like you see it on the tour, and then we kept it moving,” she said. “I hope that we don't just move it and leave it there. And that we are able to have events around it and talk about it. So, that's not just sitting there like it has been.”
Bray schools were established by the Associates of Dr. Bray, an 18th-century Anglican organization. The curriculum justified slavery and taught basic skills. At least five Bray Schools were established in Williamsburg and Fredericksburg, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, according to Encyclopedia Virginia.
“It came here, I think, more to indoctrinate than to educate, to teach people what to think, but not how to think,” said Janice Canaday, a descendant of at least one Bray School student and a site supervisor at Colonial Williamsburg. “But these people had the ingenuity, they were so ingenious that they were able to take the education offered them and leverage it.”
At the Friday ceremony, Canaday and others read the names of 86 students whose names are known. But historians and genealogists are attempting to identify many more who attended the school.
From 1760 to 1774, between 300 and 400 young boys and girls — many but not all of whom were enslaved — learned how to write, sew or knit in the house.
Colonial Williamsburg, which has set the school next to the secretly-founded First Baptist Church, plans to continue to restore the building using 18th-century techniques and use it for interpretive history.
In a joint press release, W&M and Colonial Williamsburg called the building's relocation “another step forward in both organizations’ intentionally inclusive approaches to researching and teaching American history.”
Founded in 1926, Colonial Williamsburg first incorporated interpretive history as told by Black employees in 1979, when the foundation contacted Hampton University students to work as first-person interpreters.
In 2009, the W&M board acknowledged the university enslaved people from its founding and set into motion the Lemon Project, an effort to examine the institution’s past.
The Williamsburg Bray School is scheduled to open to the public in September 2024.