The university finds an 18th-century schoolhouse where black children learned to read


William & Mary academics and researchers at the University of Virginia had known for years about the Bray School, where black children living free and in slavery were taught to read from 1760 to 1774. But no one has found the school yet.

Until last year, that is. In June, workers tore up the walls of a supposed early 20th-century building on campus and found a tree harvested in 1759.

The small, four-room school was clearly hiding in William & Mary’s military science department.

“As a historian, I always think there’s a box unopened, there’s a closet that hasn’t been looked at,” said Jody Lynn Allen, a professor of history at William & Mary and director of the Lemon Project, which was established in 2009 to research the heritage of college slavery. “We always hope we find something like this.”

Of particular note is the discovery of a 260-year-old structure that has such a deep connection to a little-known chapter in Williamson’s colonial history when more than 50 percent of the population was black and it was legal to teach slaves to read. said.

“It’s amazing,” Professor Allen said. – What a find.

Virginia Governor Ralph S. Northam visited the school on Thursday to commemorate the discovery of the building, which was reported by The Washington Post. The College and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation plan to restore the building and relocate it to its original location near Prince George Street.

It is expected to open to the public in 2024, the 250th anniversary of the school’s closure, said Ronald L. Hurst, the foundation’s vice president of museums, preservation and historical resources. He led a team of researchers who examined the building last summer.

The discovery of the building can be traced back to at least 2004, when Terry L. Meyers, a professor emeritus at the college’s English emeritus, found a memoir from a Williamsburg resident who described the 18th-century house housed in the block. 1930

When Professor Meyers went to the address, he found no such old structure. Nevertheless, he decided to research the building and concluded that additions had been made to it and the roof had changed.

As he continued digging, he learned of two young children, Fanny and Adam, who were owned by the college and attended Bray School, founded by a philanthropic group that supported the mission of the English preacher Thomas Bray, who preached. the need to educate black slaves in the British North American colonies.

Additional clues were in place. Professor Meyers found records of rents for the owner of the building, Colonel Dudley Digges, called Dr. Bray’s staff by the group, which opened various schools around the colonies, including one in Williamsburg.

In 2013, clay balls, slate pencils and a small piece of slate were found during an archaeological excavation on George Prince Street, where it was originally Colonel Digges ’building.

By 2019, academics and archaeologists knew where the school was, but they still needed evidence that the building under the block was once the school’s home.

An analysis of the wooden frame of the building finally confirmed Professor Meyers ’long-standing theory.

The school was “built very cheaply and very quickly,” Mr. Hurst said. – Not even painted inside.

The children sent there by the owners were taught exclusively by a white woman named Ann Wager.

She worked at the school every day of the week for 14 years, said Nicole Brown, a college graduate student in American studies and an actor who has portrayed Ms. Wager for nearly four years.

The children were taught Christianity and learned to read biblical stories and sermons about slaves who loved their lord — in an effort to reinforce the idea that slavery was benevolent and ordained of God, ”Ms. Brown said. The girls learned the needle.

A slave who can read can also get a higher price on the auction block from a shopkeeper who needs accounting for someone, or a homeowner who wants a chef who can read recipes.

“He doesn’t seem to have been selfless in any way,” Mr. Hurst said of the school’s mission.

Professor Meyers said academics and archaeologists are still debating whether students were taught to write. The pencils unearthed in 2013 seem to suggest that they do exist, but Professor Meyers said researchers have failed to find documents that list writing as part of the curriculum.

There is evidence that education has encouraged students to rebel against their circumstances, Mrs. Brown said. According to Professor Allen, there are reports that suggest that some of the students became secret teachers, passing on what they learned.

One of the students, Isaac Bee, ran away twice, Ms. Brown said.

In a letter sent to the school by a trustee, he complained that although the girl was apparently doing well during her studies, she remained stubbornly unchanged in her efforts to “reform” her.

“She’s obviously resistant,” Ms. Brown said. “Education, once dissolved, cannot be withheld. And that’s a big, big part of the history of this school. “

According to Professor Allen, the goal now is to trace the descendants of children who have studied at school and learn more about the lives of the students. About 400 students between the ages of 3 and 10 were taught at the school.

“I think we owe them,” Professor Allen said. – And we owe it to ourselves.