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Virginia: Oldest surviving schoolhouse for Black children relocated to Colonial Williamsburg


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A historic building believed to be the oldest school used to teach Black children in the U.S. was picked up and relocated to Colonial Williamsburg on Friday.

The Bray School, constructed 25 years before the American Revolution, was loaded onto a flatbed truck and transported a half-mile from an area near the college campus of William & Mary to the living history museum.

The move comes as the historic site continues to emphasize African American history.

"Religion was at the heart of the school, and it was not a gospel of abolition," said Maureen Elgersman Lee, director of William & Mary’s Bray School Lab.

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The pinewood building held as many as 30 students at a time, historians have said.

"There was this need to proselytize and to bring salvation while still not doing anything to destabilize the institution of slavery," Lee said. "Save the soul, but continue to enslave the body. It was the here versus the hereafter."

On Friday, hundreds of people lined the streets to celebrate the trip to Virginia’s colonial capital as it continues to teach early history through reenactments, interpreters and restored buildings.

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The Bray School stands as a symbol for historians and descendants alike defiant of the belief all enslaved Americans were uneducated. The school’s faith-based curriculum — created by an English charity — however, justified slavery and encouraged students to accept their fate as God’s plan.

The curriculum was still empowering, perhaps even subversive, historians said.

"I was going through a facsimile of one of the books, and there are words like ‘liberty,’" Lee said. "What did learning those words do to expand these children’s sense of themselves? Their sense of the world?"

The school’s student body is believed to have included free and enslaved students. 

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A white teacher named Ann Wager, who lived upstairs at the school, taught an estimated 300 to 400 students, whose ages ranged from 3 to 10, according to surviving records.

The Bray School was established in 1760 at the recommendation of Benjamin Franklin, chairman of a London-based Anglican charity named after philanthropist Reverend Thomas Bray. It operated until 1774.

The charity also set up schools in other cities, including New York and Philadelphia.

The building became a private home for years before being incorporated into William & Mary’s campus.

Williamsburg is less than 10 miles from Jamestown, which England established in 1607.

The identity of the original Bray School building was confirmed in 2021, through the use of dendrochronology, a scientific method that examines tree rings in lumber to determine the wood’s harvest date.

"This is a remarkable story of survival," said Matthew Webster, Colonial Williamsburg’s executive director of architectural preservation and research. "And for us, it’s so important to put it back (to its original state) and tell the full and true story."

Colonial Williamsburg is a museum that was founded in 1926. It started teaching Black history in 1979.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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