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The World of the Williamsburg Bray School

A school for enslaved and free Black children was established at a time of profound changes worldwide

Established by the London-based Anglican charity known as the Associates of Dr. Bray and recommended by Benjamin Franklin, the Williamsburg Bray School offered education to local Black children, enslaved and free, from 1760 to 1774. A rich part of Virginia’s colonial past, the Bray School may be considered in the context of other dimensions of the African diaspora, including the Atlantic slave trade, Caribbean freedom struggles, major imperial shifts and Virginia’s political maturation.

At dawn on Sept. 29, 1760, 24 of Williamsburg’s African American children — some free, but most enslaved — started their day. Early rising was not unusual as they were likely accustomed to tending to tasks before the colonial capital fully awoke from its nightly repose.

But this day was different.

On this day, as the autumn sun chased away the darkness and warmed the world anew, the children made their way through the streets to start their first day at the Bray School. En route, they likely passed the College of William & Mary before arriving at the corner of Boundary and Prince George streets. There, in a modest 17-by-33 wooden cottage, later known as the Dudley Digges House, the students met their teacher, Ann Wager. Using a religious-based curriculum prescribed by the London-based Associates of Dr. Bray, Wager instructed the children in the tenets of the Anglican church and in subjects including reading, comportment and sewing.

As these girls and boys crossed the threshold of the Bray School, their place and meaning in the Williamsburg community became more layered and complex; they were enslaved, free, female, male, Black, student. The Bray School’s first students were part of a larger world shaped by the expanding Atlantic slave trade, freedom struggles in the British Caribbean, the fall of New France and even the rise of two young Virginians named George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. It was a socially, politically and economically charged time when conflicting ideas of race, slavery, freedom and empire clashed.

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

The century of the Bray School’s opening was the most voluminous of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database tells us that during the 18th century, some 5.6 million Africans survived the inhumane Atlantic crossing known as the Middle Passage to disembark in the Americas, in territories colonized by Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Great Britain, France and Denmark. This number represents 45% of the roughly 12.5 million Africans found in the database.

Further, from 1751 and 1760 alone, more than half a million Africans were taken from their homelands to the Americas, with the largest proportions of people taken to Brazil and the Caribbean islands. The United States received less than 10% of direct African imports over the entire life of the trans-Atlantic trade.

During those same 10 years that preceded the Bray School’s opening, Virginia’s enslaved population was on the rise. The colony imported just over 13,000 Africans from the continent but still relied less on African arrivals than its counterparts in the Caribbean. Virginia’s enslaved population grew more from natural increase than from importation. In 1760, Virginia hosted a population of approximately 346,000 people, and Williamsburg was home to somewhere between 1,200 and 1,400, with roughly one-half being of African descent. Bray School children lived in a highly racialized colonial society where Black bodies were equated with chattel status. The Associates of Dr. Bray sought to bring religious and practical instruction to enslaved children, but they had no intention of muting the essence of race-based chattel slavery.

Slave Revolt in the British Caribbean

Eighteenth-century colonial investments in slavery continued to expand throughout the Americas, and enslaved Blacks violently pushed back against the structure and oppression of the institution.

British-colonized Jamaica, for example, faced a violent 18-month slave uprising that began in April 1760. Put down in October 1761, Tacky’s Revolt, or Tacky’s Rebellion, resulted in extensive losses to the island’s plantation economy and in the deaths of at least 60 whites and more than 500 Blacks; another 500 Blacks were deported to British Honduras, where they continued to be enslaved.

With a brutal plantation system, high mortality rates and a heavy reliance on African imports, the experience of slavery in Jamaica was miserable at best. By 1760, the Seven Years’ War had created a power vacuum that advantaged the island’s enslaved population. British military forces were stretched increasingly thin as Kings George II and III were compelled to engage the French and the Spanish and defend interests in Europe, Asia and the Americas. Enslaved Blacks took advantage of what historian Vincent Brown calls “fissures in the imperial landscape of power” to try to remake their world on their terms.

The insurrection tested Britain’s ability to maintain control of its most lucrative Caribbean sugar colony. Before long, Bray School students would witness a similar test of Britain’s power when the American colonies declared their independence in 1776 — and waged war to defend it.

The Fall of New France

The French and Indian War, 1754–1763, was the North American theater of the Seven Years’ War. Another dimension of the often-shifting Atlantic world was the September 1760 capitulation of Montreal.

After capturing Quebec City at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759, British forces organized a multidirectional attack on Montreal from the St. Lawrence and Richelieu rivers and Lake Ontario in 1760. Amidst calls from his officers to fight on, New France’s governor general, Pierre de Rigaud de Vaudreuil, made the controversial decision to surrender. Although he was able to negotiate a historic peace that preserved French rights of religion, language and civil law, New France was quickly absorbed into an expanding British North American empire of which Virginia — and Williamsburg — were a part.

Students who entered the Bray School in late September 1760 did so at a pivotal moment in the expansion of the British Empire. They were now part of a much larger British North America that reached the Hudson Bay, the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. This massive expansion would be relatively short-lived, though, with the American Revolution looming on the historical horizon.

Two Founding Fathers

Another key development during this period was the rise of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

A slave owner (by inheritance) at age 11 and a celebrated military leader by age 22, Major George Washington had relinquished his military commission by the time the Bray School began. He married Martha Dandridge Custis in 1759 and pursued life as a gentleman farmer on his growing Mount Vernon estate. Representing Frederick County in the House of Burgesses from 1758 to 1765 and traveling frequently to the colonial capital, Washington would have been well-versed in the layout of the city.

Jefferson was just shy of his 17th birthday when he began his matriculation in March 1760 at William & Mary. Jefferson spent a total of seven years studying in Williamsburg, first at William & Mary and then under the tutelage of George Wythe, his mentor in the study of law.

Given their extensive exposure to the Williamsburg political and social landscapes and their experiences with slavery, Washington and Jefferson likely were aware of the Bray School’s existence.

Despite their proximity to two of the most venerated future Founding Fathers, Bray School students were never able to look to Washington or Jefferson in their hopes for freedom. Washington did bequeath freedom to his slaves, but neither he nor Jefferson created any systemic challenges to the institution. Bray School students would have to use their finite education to empower themselves and their families the best ways they could.


The founding of the Williamsburg Bray School also stands against the backdrop of slave sales, runaways and executions of Blacks, both enslaved and free, in Virginia’s early capital.

The Virginia Gazette provides valuable local context for the Bray School’s first days and first students. At its most basic, slavery made Blacks part of the marketplace, to be bought and sold. Because they had legal status as chattel — personal, movable property — enslaved Blacks were part of estate inventories passed to heirs or could go to auction when their owners died. They could also be sold for debts or for quick access to capital.

William Byrd III advertised one such large-scale slave and land auction in the Virginia Gazette in January 1761. Byrd was a lawyer and planter who inherited one of Virginia’s largest plantations when his father died in 1744. Byrd’s various vices, including gambling, eventually forced him to auction off a considerable portion of his more than 179,000 acres of land and extensive chattel property:

ON Tuesday, February 3d, will be sold to the highest Bidders...about FIVE HUNDRED SLAVES, belonging to the Hon. William Byrd, Esquire; among which are Tradesmen of all Sorts; with a vast Quantity of Stock.... To be sold likewise, about THIRTY THOUSAND ACRES of fine LAND.

In addition to sales and appeals for the return of Black freedom seekers, some of the even darker aspects of the color line played out on the pages of the Virginia Gazette. On Nov. 30, 1759, it reported:

This Day Caeser Valentine, a free Negro, who was condemned at the last General-Court for Felony, was executed at the Gallows near this City, pursuant to his Sentence.

The Gazette did not indicate the nature of Valentine’s crime, but he was likely convicted of an offense such as murder, rape, arson, treason or serious threat. While some Virginia slaveholders successfully petitioned for compensation when their slaves were executed, Valentine’s status as a free man meant that no one could claim property rights in him.

When the 24 students began their studies at the Williamsburg Bray School in September 1760, they did so in an experimental space that blurred the distinctions between free and enslaved. Their education was delivered as a constantly changing world was violently working out the meaning of freedom in the midst of expanding and contracting empires. Regardless of how long each child remained in school, the very act of being educated changed the trajectories of their lives in dramatic or nuanced ways.

It is the mission of the Bray School Lab to uncover and document the lives of these first students, and of the hundreds that followed until the Bray School closed in 1774. Their engaging stories are contained in an often too silent archive to be studied for many years to come. 

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