It was an eventful and remarkable scene just a few weeks ago, in early February 2023, when the Williamsburg Bray School building moved from its location on Prince George Street to its new home in the Colonial Williamsburg historic area. We were longtime neighbors, as the structure, also known as the Braye-Diggs house, had existed for the last century just a block from our Historic Williamsburg bed & breakfast inn in downtown Williamsburg. With much fanfare, Williamsburg residents lined the streets as a flatbed truck paraded the 250-plus-year-old house through the downtown district to its new residence near Francis and Nassau St in the heart of Colonial Williamsburg.
The relocation of the Williamsburg Bray School historic home is the culmination of years of collaboration between the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and the College of William and Mary, combining their efforts to reveal the historical roots and importance of the unique Bray School.
Although the Williamsburg Bray School may look similar on the surface to other colonial-era houses spread throughout town, its walls are hallowed, as it’s the oldest extant building dedicated to educating Black students in the United States. Beginning in 1760, with charity funding provided by the Anglican Associates of Dr. Bray, local educator Ann Wager instructed over 300 freed and enslaved Black students in reading, writing, etiquette, sewing, and knitting over the subsequent 14 years that the school remained open. Wager brought a wealth of teaching experience to the classroom – she had tutored students from distinguished local families, such as that of Carter Burwell, who served in the powerful House of Burgesses. She would be the only teacher during the Bray School’s operating years, as the school closed upon her passing.
Her students ranged in age from 3-10 years old, 90% enslaved, with the enslaved students enrolled by their owners to “improve the value” of their property. Wager’s faith-based curriculum followed the Church of England’s doctrine, including a pro-slavery perspective encouraging young and impressionable Black students to accept their destiny as enslaved servants. While this aspect of the Bray School methodology is undoubtedly controversial and unpalatable in retrospect, Wager also empowered her students by teaching them literacy, opening doors unavailable to those who couldn’t read or write. Through oral tradition, we know that three of her students likely went on to become the first Black teachers in Virginia, and another became a preacher at the first Black Baptist Church in Williamsburg.
The thread connecting the Bray School to the town of Williamsburg and the College of William and Mary stretches back to its founding, as prominent Williamsburg visitor Benjamin Franklin recommended its formation along with then-president of the College of William and Mary, Thomas Dawson. Over the ensuing 200-plus years since the Bray School closed in 1774, the Bray house served as a dormitory for female students of William and Mary and later as the home of the college’s ROTC program.
Until a few years ago, the humble house at 524 Prince George St was simply an outpost of the university, its special provenance yet to be revealed. But due to the efforts of the Williamsburg Bray School Initiative, scientists and historians from both Colonial Williamsburg and William and Mary used advanced paint analysis and dendrochronology (dating wood) to discover that the Bray-Digges House was the original home of Williamsburg Bray School. In addition to dating the interior wood to 1759-60 (just before the Bray School opened in the fall of 1760) and finding layers of paint dating back to the early 19th century, they unearthed fragments of slate pencils used by Bray students so long ago.
After moving to its new location and now under the expert stewardship of Colonial Williamsburg, the Williamsburg Bray School will continue to be a place of learning, tracing the complicated story of race in our country. Among other areas of ongoing work, researchers are compiling info about any descendants of the Bray School that they can find, a student list that fills in a bit more every year.
In revealing the historical and cultural strands connecting the Bray School with our current day, the Bray School’s legacy of education will continue, illuminating Williamsburg’s past and present.
*Featured image Wikimedia Commons