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Most recently, a modest white building situated on William & Mary’s campus housed the university’s military science department. But about 20 years ago, Terry L. Meyers, a literary scholar at the university, became curious about its history.
Since then, researchers have been poring over archival materials, conducting archaeological excavations and analyzing the building’s wood framing.
Two years ago, experts at the College of William and Mary officially confirmed that the building was once the Williamsburg Bray School, where free and enslaved Black children learned alongside one another from 1760 to 1774.
According to William & Mary, it’s likely the oldest building of its kind in the country
“The Williamsburg Bray School provides us with an incredible opportunity to explore and learn from a complicated piece of our past that—like the Bray School building itself—has been overlooked by so many for hundreds of years,” says Cliff Fleet, Colonial Williamsburg’s president and CEO, in a statement.
At the recommendation of Benjamin Franklin, a London-based charity opened the school in 1760.
The charity was called the Associates of Dr. Bray—named for its founder, English clergyman Thomas Bray—and it opened several such schools throughout the colonies, with a goal of converting Black children to Christianity, a tool colonizers often deployed to further Black servitude and White superiority.
Christianity ‘encouraged those who were enslaved to accept their destinies’
According to The Smithsonian, during its 14 years in operation, the Williamsburg school had just one teacher, a White woman named Ann Wager. Wager taught the school’s faith-based curriculum to roughly 400 students between the ages of 3 and 10 years old. The building could hold up to 30 students at a time.
The lessons—which included reading, writing and sewing—provided enslaved children with a substandard education at a time when many White communities prohibited teaching them at all, “fearing literacy would encourage their liberty,” per Ben Finley of the Associated Press (AP).
The majority of students, some 90 percent, were enslaved. Ultimately, the curriculum “justified slavery and encouraged those who were enslaved to accept their destinies,” writes Colonial Williamsburg.
Teaching enslaved people about forgiveness, love, and peace surely rang hollow for those in attendance. Yet for others who adopted the Colonizer’s message, many irreversibly lost their African ties to spirituality in place of the force-fed Christianity.
Frederick Douglass once said: “Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ; I therefore hate the corrupt, slave-holding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason but the most deceitful one for calling the religion of this land Christianity.”
As GOP lawmakers scramble to ban valuable Black perspectives across the US, it’s been clear for some time what many descendants of colonizers fear most is an educated population of Black people, realizing education is inextricably tied to liberation.
The school shut down during the American Revolutionary War, and the building became a private home. William & Mary later purchased the building and began using it for university functions.
Crews installed electricity and built new additions. However, they left many of its original features intact, including the floorboards, chimney and staircase.
In the fall of 2021, the university agreed to sell the building to Colonial Williamsburg, which will restore it to its original state. Together, the university and the museum launched the Williamsburg Bray School Initiative to support ongoing research, restoration and interpretation efforts.
At its new location, it’s slated to open to the public in September 2024, the 250th anniversary of the school’s closing.