WILLIAMSBURG, Va.— A College of William and Mary professor thinks he may have found the nation’s oldest surviving schoolhouse for African-American children.
English professor Terry Meyers believes the college — at Benjamin Franklin’s urging — was instrumental in opening the Williamsburg Bray School in 1760 to educate both free and enslaved Blacks.
The find would be remarkable not only for its historical significance, but for its location in the political and ideological epicenter of slavery. The college itself was funded by taxes on tobacco harvested by slaves. The college, its faculty and even some students owned slaves, and slave labor built core campus buildings, maintained the grounds and fed the residents.
It also runs counter to later sentiments in Virginia and other Southern states, which explicitly forbade teaching slaves to read or write. An 1819 Virginia law made doing so punishable by 20 lashes.
“To me, the Bray School stands out as a bright spot in an otherwise dark narrative,” Dr. Meyers said.
Meyers, a 65-year-old English scholar, found details in Colonial documents that other scholars had missed. In a book of town lore, there was mention of an 18th-century home that had gone missing.
The home, located across from the college campus, had belonged to Dudley Digges. Meyers believes historians lost track of the house because they linked it to the wrong Digges, a Yorktown patriot. Another Dudley Digges, the patriot’s uncle, had bought a home in Williamsburg.
Colonial records show Digges rented out the home to an English charity, the Associates of Dr. Bray, in 1760.
Franklin, the future Founding Father, had proposed Williamsburg as one of three Colonial sites for the “Instruction of Negro Children.”
Records show the Bray School endured until the death of the schoolmistress, Anne Wager, in 1774. Wager taught as many as 30 students at a time, mostly slaves, including two, Adam and Fanny, who were owned by the college.
The children were taught to read and write, and the girls to knit and sew. School rules instructed Wager to lead the students “in a decent & orderly Manner to Church.”
Archival photographs from the 19th century show the former schoolhouse, a two-story, four-room wooden cottage, framed by a pair of chimneys.
The Digges house fell into disrepair by 1801. It was later converted into a dormitory, expanded and moved.
Meyers found what he believes is the home in 2004; someone told him it was on a list for demolition. Its Colonial origins were mostly hidden beneath a jumble of misplaced windows and mismatched doors.
The chimneys are still there, along with an old, Hobbit-sized door, half hidden behind a poster. The building houses ROTC training rooms.
“This is 18th century, we’re pretty sure of that,” Meyers said, patting an oak banister inside the dwelling on a recent day. “And that’s pretty much all.”
Although Meyers has no proof the building is the old schoolhouse, historians support his claims.
Meyers would like to see the ground excavated at the original Digges address. Historians agree that some testing should be done to determine the age of the structure.
Robert Engs, a retired University of Pennsylvania historian who has advised the college on how to address slavery, said the identity of the structure matters less than the story behind it.
“What’s impressive was that the people who created this school believed that African Americans had immortal souls, just like White people,”‘ Engs said, “and that they needed salvation.”
Meyers’ work helped spawn a campuswide initiative called the Lemon Project, after a slaved named Lemon who was owned by the college. A 2009 resolution from the college’s governing board recognized the school’s exploitation of slave labor and urged a long-term commitment “to better understand, chronicle, and preserve the history of Blacks,” at the school.
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