WILLIAMSBURG, Va. – A small, white building tucked away on the William & Mary campus once housed the Williamsburg Bray School, an 18th-century institution dedicated to the education of enslaved and free Black children, researchers have determined. Now, the university and Colonial Williamsburg are working together to ensure current and future generations learn about the complex history of what is likely the oldest extant building in the United States dedicated to the education of Black children – and the stories of those who were part of it.
The new partnership calls for the relocation of the Bray-Digges House to Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area, where it would become the 89th original structure restored by the foundation. It also establishes the Williamsburg Bray School Initiative, a joint venture of the university and foundation to use the site as a focal point for research, scholarship and dialogue regarding the complicated story of race, religion and education in Williamsburg and in America.
Dendrochronology analysis of the building’s wood framing in 2020 by Colonial Williamsburg researchers confirms that the structure at 524 Prince George St. once housed Williamsburg’s Bray School, an institution that educated many of the town’s Black children from 1760 to 1774. Suggested for establishment in Williamsburg by Benjamin Franklin, the Bray School’s mission was to impart Christian education to Black children and for students to accept enslavement as divinely ordained.
William & Mary and Colonial Williamsburg are both neighbors and frequent collaborators. The Bray School has been the object of numerous research initiatives focusing on archival as well as material-culture sources aimed at expanding the collective understanding of history, including the joint archaeological excavation of the historic Bray-Digges House site at Prince George and Boundary streets. Currently, the university and foundation are partners in work led by the city’s Historic First Baptist Church to research and interpret its first permanent site on South Nassau Street. The Bray School partnership will facilitate continued research and interpretation, and a deeper examination of a number of aspects of history through the lens of the Bray School, including perspectives from families whose children attended the school and the motivations of white slaveowners who sent them there.
“Our knowledge of history is not static; it continues to reveal itself through critical work like the investigation of the Bray-Digges House,” said Stephen Seals, a Colonial Williamsburg interpreter, program development manager and community liaison. “The Bray School represents another complex chapter in our nation’s story, and its restoration and interpretation will be critical to our community’s work to foster a more complete understanding of our shared history.”
Plans to research, relocate, restore and interpret the Bray-Digges House are possible thanks in part to a $400,000 grant from the Gladys and Franklin Clark Foundation.