William and Mary Professor Thinks He Found Oldest Black School

Diverse Education, July 26, 2010

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.

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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.”

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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.

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“What’s impressive was that the people who created this school believed that African Americans had immortal souls, just like White people,”‘ Engs [Robert Engs, a retired University of Pennsylvania historian] said, “and that they needed salvation.”

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