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HOMETOWN U.S.A.: Williamsburg, Va.

Archaeologists dig for a colonial-era black school

Kids at the Bray School learned reading, writing and manners that made them more skilled slaves — and freemen.

August 19, 2012|By Mark St. John Erickson, Daily Press
  • Archaeologists in Williamsburg, Va., uncover remains of a brick well that may have been part of the Bray School for black children, founded in 1760.
Archaeologists in Williamsburg, Va., uncover remains of a brick well that… (Joe Fudge, Daily Press )

Stop by the corner of Prince George and Boundary streets on almost any morning and you're likely to see the old brick walks busy with pedestrian traffic.

Curious tourists mix with sleepy students walking from their dorm at old Brown Hall to classes at the College of William and Mary.

Step back in time 250 years, however, and you would have seen about 30 black children ages 3 to 10 lining up for a day of instruction in reading, writing, religion and deportment.

Founded in 1760 by the college and an Anglo-American missionary group whose trustees included Benjamin Franklin, the pioneering Bray School touched the lives of several hundred young blacks over its 14 years, helping give Williamsburg a population of slaves and freemen who were unusually literate.

And now archaeologists from Colonial Williamsburg and the college are probing the yard around Brown Hall looking for evidence of its presence.

Among their discoveries is a brick-lined well that may have provided the students with water. They've also unearthed signs of a post-in-ground structure that may have served as their kitchen.

Equally evocative are the slate pencils and marbles that have emerged as the scientists have sifted through deposits of churned-up fill. Though stripped of their original context — and therefore of no value in proving any link to the school's past — they still smack of a world inhabited by children.

"It's very tantalizing," says Rockefeller Library fellow Julie Richter, a William and Mary history lecturer who is studying the scant documentary trail left by the school's pupils. "And it's exactly what they should be finding."

Beginning in late May with ground-penetrating radar, the students of the William and Mary-Colonial Williamsburg summer field school have probed more than 16 inches below the surface in the south yard, uncovering first the undulating rows of a 1920s field and then the colonial occupation layer.

Numerous postholes mark the footprint of a post-in-ground outbuilding that may date to the Bray School period, Colonial Williamsburg archaeologist Mark Kostro says. But the scatter of 1700s slate pencils and marbles was recovered from such a roiled-up deposit that its reliability as evidence is tainted.

Similar problems have dogged the excavation of the well discovered on the opposite side of the dorm.

Though the construction methods look right for the 1700s or 1800s, the widely varied dates of the artifacts found inside have made the exact age elusive.

More light could be shed by a planned investigation of a wood-frame structure a block away.

Moved from the Brown Hall site in 1930, the building was overlooked until 2011, when William and Mary English professor Terry Meyers — after persistent research — discovered evidence that points to the much enlarged, much altered house as the first home of the Bray School.

"We couldn't see it at first. But then it struck me that if you cut off the appended sections on the sides and change the roof, you have an 18th-century structure," Meyers says.

"If the evidence holds up, it's the oldest extant building in America associated with black education."

Equally important is the new information Meyers found regarding the school's links to the college.

Though most histories credit Franklin's long friendship with Williamsburg postmaster and printer William Hunter as the reason behind his nomination of the town as a site for a new school, Franklin's recommendation specifically notes the support of the college president too.

Thomas Dawson and his brother, William — who was William and Mary's previous head — had long records of encouraging black education, Meyers says. And Franklin met them when he came to receive an honorary degree four years before the Bray School was founded.

"What fascinates me is how this could have been forgotten," Meyers says. "William and Mary is the first college or university in America to concern itself with educating blacks."

Members of Williamsburg gentry and some of its many tavern keepers routinely sent their young black boys and girls to the school.

Saving their souls was important, Richter says. But so were the lessons in reading, writing, needlework and manners that made them more useful and valuable as servants.

Still, the same training that left some blacks better educated than most white colonists had consequences the school's founders didn't intend.

Numerous newspaper ads describe runaways who could read and write and who declared they had the right to be free.

merickson@dailypress.com

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