The findings make the building the 89th original structure in Williamsburg, but its significance goes well beyond that. From 1760 to 1774, in a slaveholding colony, the Williamsburg Bray School educated as many as 400 Black children. The discovery has generated a great deal of media attention, including stories in The New York Times and The Washington Post and on NPR and CNN.
In a February announcement of the findings, Colonial Williamsburg’s President Cliff Fleet said the Foundation, working with William & Mary and the community, was “collectively committed to doing the work to educate current and future generations about our African American heritage and the complicated history of the Bray School.”
William & Mary President Katherine Rowe, who also spoke at the February event, agreed that it is impossible to overstate the importance of the discovery and that it “will illuminate the stories of the Black students who attended the school and the impact that their education had on our region and our nation.”
The impact of that education is, as Fleet noted, a complicated story. Williamsburg was an unlikely home for African American education. Many slave owners considered the enslaved incapable of learning much, or they feared that an enslaved child who was educated was more likely to find a way to escape.
The school’s ideology was unquestionably pro-slavery. A set of rules drawn up in 1762 directed the teacher to instruct her students “in the Principles of the Christian Religion” and to teach them that “Christians are commanded to be faithful & obedient to their Masters.” Some slave owners treated the school as a nursery, removing students when they were old enough or strong enough to work or simply whenever they were needed. Others allowed enslaved children to be educated because literacy and numeracy increased their value.
Yet the school called for teaching students to read, and some students surely used that knowledge in ways slave owners feared. Isaac Bee attended the school as a child and later ran away. In 1774, his owner, Lewis Burwell, placed an ad in The Virginia Gazette warning that Bee could read. Gowan Pamphlet, who later preached at Williamsburg’s first Black Baptist church, may have been one of the children whose owner, tavern keeper Jane Vobe, enrolled in the school.
Speakers at the February announcement speculated about how children educated at the Bray School could have used what they learned to undermine slavery, despite the school’s pro-slavery philosophy.
“There are certain attributes of childhood that persist over place and time,” said Jody Allen, the Robert Francis Engs Director of the Lemon Project, which is dedicated to uncovering and addressing William & Mary’s relationship with African Americans throughout its history. “What did you want to do as soon as you got home [from school]? Typically, we wanted to tell someone, anyone who would listen — our parents, our siblings, our dolls, GI Joe — what we had learned that day.
“By teaching others, these children were using tools meant to eliminate their desire for a different earthly life, but they used it to subvert the system and to aid others in the transformation and transcendence of their assigned status,” she said.
Rex Ellis, formerly the associate director for curatorial affairs at the National Museum of African American History and Culture and before that a vice president of Colonial Williamsburg, agreed that enslaved children would have used what they learned in subversive ways.
“Yes, it was to spread the gospel. Yes, it taught students the etiquette of the church,” Ellis said of the Bray School. “But it also taught the art of reading and writing and what they called ciphering, arithmetic. Most significant for me, it was a moment, if only a brief moment, that African youngsters were introduced to explorations of the mind, where they were exposed to the possibilities of literacy and learning.”
Ellis called the discovery of the school important not just for Williamsburg but also for America: “At a time when we are losing our moorings as a nation, the potential of a story that shows how the dreams of a few contributed to the values and the understanding of the many is extraordinary, how faith and scholarship and enlightenment mattered at the beginning of who we became as an American nation is immense.”
Whether students at the Bray School were taught to write as well as to read remains a disputed question. Terry Meyers, chancellor professor emeritus of English at William & Mary and an expert on the college’s relationship with enslaved people, is among those who doubt students there were taught to write. But he too stressed that “education often has unintended consequences.” According to Meyers, oral tradition holds that three of the free girls enrolled at the school took what they learned back to the community and are known as the first Black teachers in Virginia.