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The Bray School Lab is uncovering untold Black American stories

Two women look over a circular chart on a large white sheet of paper while sitting at an office desk.
Adrienne McGibbon
/
VPM News
Tonia Meredith and Elizabeth Drembus look over genealogical records while working at the Bray School Lab.

Restoration allows Colonial Williamsburg to share more Black American stories.

The Bray School, originally located on Boundary Street in Williamsburg, is unearthing old family connections and presenting new opportunities for a better understanding of Virginia’s past.

The 264-year-old building is the oldest existing school for Black students in the country. It was built in 1760 and operated until 1774. Researchers estimate between 300 and 400 free and enslaved Black students attended during its 14-year operation.

For decades, the College of William & Mary faculty used the Bray School as an office building. In February 2021, Colonial Williamsburg and William & Mary announced their discovery of the building’s historical value.

The institutions have worked together since to move the structure to its current location on Nassau Street in Colonial Williamsburg, restore its 1760 appearance and reopen the Bray School to the public for educational touring.

Right now, the structure is covered by metal framing and a white tarp. A team of architectural preservationists have been removing remnants of wings added in the 1950s and replacing 1930s-era roofing with gables, which are more accurate to its 18th century appearance.

Matthew Webster, executive director of architectural preservation and research at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, is leading those efforts.

“For me, it's the human aspect of the building. It's not just a box, you know, that life revolved around: It shows life,” Webster said. “And that story is all captured in that building. It’s remarkably intact.”

Webster estimates construction on the building’s exterior will be complete this fall. No date has been set for when the building will open for public tours.

Its restoration presents new opportunities for the living history museum to share the stories of Black Americans living in what became the United States.

House is moved on large semi-trailer bed as construction workers monitor progress and crowd observes
Brendan Sostak
/
Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
Crews moved the Bray School from William & Mary to Colonial Williamsburg in February 2023.

Interpreting 18th-century Black American life

During the 18th century, Black people made up more than half of Williamsburg’s population.

Thomas Bray, an English clergyman, founded an organization intended to educate African Americans in the British North American colonies. The Williamsburg Bray School was one of those educational institutions.

New walking tours provided by Colonial Williamsburg explain the intent of the schools wasn’t to educate the students, but to encourage them to assimilate into a slavery-reliant system.

“The motive is control,” said Brandon Hewitt, a Colonial Williamsburg history interpreter, during a tour in early June.

Despite Bray’s intentions, Hewitt said some children took advantage of the opportunity to become literate while questioning some lessons.

During that tour, Hewitt shared the story of Bray School teacher Ann Wager and Hannah — a 7-year-old student who attended in 1762.

“And Hannah ... she is rejecting the false teaching that’s being daily given by Ann Wager in that school,” Hewitt said to a group of visitors.

Researchers have uncovered the student rosters for three years of the Bray School’s operations, including students’ names and their ages. In all, 80 students ranging from 3 to 10 years old are on the lists.

The walking tours examine the Bray School’s history as well as the life experiences and contributions of Black people in colonial America.

“I remember years ago, when I first came here, there were a few things to do, but now there’s more nation builders,” Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, resident Morgan Hess said. “I think it’s cool to take the unheard voices and build upon that.”

Discovering Bray School descendants

One aspect of telling the Bray School’s story is tracking down the descendants of those children who once were students.

William & Mary’s Bray School Lab is uncovering and preserving documents related to the school’s history. A genealogist, researcher and oral historian are using a multi-pronged approach to connecting living people with their ancestors.

“These children were some of the first scholars in the new world. That’s an American story that should be shared,” said Tonia Meredith, the lab’s oral historian and a descendant of the Bray School.

Preserved Bray School roster with handwritten names and ownership listed
Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
The roster of children who attended Bray School in 1762.

Meredith interviews people connected with the school as either direct descendants of students, the descendants of white slave-owning families that sent enslaved children to Bray and people who “feel a certain connection” with the school.

Lab employees say there is a need for a more inclusive approach to their project.

Elizabeth Drembus, the Bray School Lab’s genealogist, said this initiative presents challenges that are unique to tracing African American lineage.

“Normally you would work from the present, going backwards, start with what you know, then talk to your parents, then talk to your grandparents,” Drembus said.

Bray School’s descendant community has been integral to the work of tracking down ancestors, but Drembus has also been reliant on the historical record — which listed many of the students as the property of white families in the region.

“We’re going to be looking at the wills and the inventories in the estate accounts to find the list and the names of the kids on those lists,” Drembus said.

The process of unearthing this documentation also provides a reminder of uncomfortable truths that Meredith said have been difficult to deal with.

“Just talking about the fact that I’m descended from those [slave-owning] families, what that infers is I’m descended from them because an enslaver had an ancestor of mine through the practice of rape,” Meredith said.

Despite this, Meredith focuses on the primary benefit the Bray School provided: an education.

“Before this country was a nation, there were Black children being educated and receiving what we would consider a private education,” Meredith said.

Janice Canaday, another Bray School descendant and Colonial Williamsburg Foundation employee, said reintroducing the Bray School offers an opportunity to better understand the role that Black residents played in colonial America.

“It will challenge people to broaden their perspective and their focus and what they’ve once thought,” Canaday said. “But in order to tell that whole story, you’ve got to be open-minded and willing to understand that it wasn’t just one set of people who were doing. It was everybody.”


Editor's note: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is a VPM sponsor.

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