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Colonial Schoolhouse Discovery Is An Opportunity For U.S. Racial History Lesson


Time travel may not be possible yet, but if you have visited Colonial Williamsburg, the historic district of Williamsburg, Va., you will know it is possible to feel transported to colonial America. People walk around in character. You are immersed in day-to-day life of the 1700s. And now comes the discovery that a small building on the campus of William & Mary was once a schoolhouse for enslaved and free Black children. The Williamsburg Bray School opened in 1760. It is believed to be the oldest still-standing building in the United States that was used to educate Black children.

I want to bring in Nicole Brown. She's a graduate student in William & Mary's American Studies Program, and she is one of those people walking around in character as Ann Wager, a white woman who taught students at the Bray School.

Nicole Brown, welcome.

NICOLE BROWN: Thank you so much.

KELLY: How was this discovery made? I guess it had been lost over time, what this little building's original purpose was.

BROWN: So it kind of was lost through time. And it was really through dendrochronology, or wood analysis, this past spring that indicated - based on the historical record and based on what oral history tradition had said, as well as primary resource tradition - this indeed was the Bray School building.

KELLY: Well, tell us a little bit about the school. Who went there? What was a typical school day like?

BROWN: So the school was opened in 1760, and Mrs. Wager, Ann Wager, was the teacher for its 14-year duration. She taught, within those 14 years, anywhere between 300 to 400 enslaved and free Black individuals ranging between the ages of 3 and 10. It was a pretty even distribution between boys and girls. About half of them were boys, and half of them were young girls.

They were taught reading, possibly writing. They were taught etiquette, sewing and knitting for the girls. And then, above all, all of that education was to culminate into this idea of bringing them to the ideology of the Church of England, hence why the Bray Associates funded the school.

KELLY: How unusual was it, by the way, for enslaved and free children to attend school together?

BROWN: It depends on what colony, what region. One of the reasons the Bray Associates ended up in Williamsburg is in part through a recommendation from Benjamin Franklin, but in part, because it's an urban environment. The literacy rate in Williamsburg is very high for Black and white, free and enslaved. But the schools were also segregated in Williamsburg based on race as well as based on class. There's a difference between education and schooling. And so many of those within the Black community were educated and would be educated within their own communities without necessarily having been in a school. A formal schooling system like this was unusual, make no mistake.

KELLY: What will this mean to you to be able to show Black children, white children around this school and explain how it worked and what it meant?

BROWN: Yeah. The most important part of the school is, for me, to share the story and the legacy and connect the communities that were most impacted by the school, which were the Black students who studied in it and took that education and made something of it both because of and in spite of the instruction they were receiving.

KELLY: You just said because of and in spite of the education they were getting. Tell me more.

BROWN: We should be very clear about this. It was a pro-slavery school for Black children. And so often these textbooks are issuing a pro-slavery ideology to the students. And yet, through runaway ads, accounts and letters, as well as many other documents, we, time and time again, see the Black community - and we at least have a few examples of specific students - resisting this pro-slavery education. So the school provided literacy, but it also provided an ideology that often was counter to the way in which those students in their communities would utilize the literacy.

KELLY: That is Nicole Brown. She's a researcher and actor at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Nicole Brown, thank you.

BROWN: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMPRESARIOS' "SIESTA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.