The oldest schoolhouse in the country dedicated to the education of Black children now has a new home at Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area. The Williamsburg Bray School was moved from the campus of William & Mary on February 10. The 18th-century building has an extraordinary history that can now be researched and shared.
“The Bray School has so much to teach us about our nation’s history, and many who shaped it,” Katherine A. Rowe, president of the school, said in a statement to TravelAwaits. “The Williamsburg Bray School Initiative, and research projects like it, are foundational to William & Mary’s core mission. We are fortunate to have great partners at Colonial Williamsburg and in the local community to help us tell its story.”
The Williamsburg Bray School is set to open to the public in September 2024, which will also commemorate the 250th anniversary of the Williamsburg Bray School’s closing.
Moving The Bray School
In February 2021, Colonial Williamsburg and William & Mary announced they had identified a small, white building on the William & Mary campus as the structure that once housed the Williamsburg Bray School. The Williamsburg Bray School Initiative was born, which would ensure that current and future generations learn about the complex history of what is the oldest extant building in the country dedicated to the education of Black children.
Then, for 16 months, a team led by Matt Webster — executive director of Colonial Williamsburg’s Grainger Department of Architectural Preservation and Research — restored the building to its original footprint to get it ready to move. The team had to remove modifications that obscured its identity. The building was transported to its new site by Expert House Movers, a company with decades of experience moving historic properties.
Now that the building sits at its new home, the team will continue the restoration process. This will include Colonial Williamsburg’s maintenance and historic trades departments made up of brickmakers, carpenters, blacksmiths, and joiners using 18th-century tools and techniques.
William & Mary Bray School Lab
The William & Mary Bray School Lab was launched in October 2021. As part of the Williamsburg Bray School Initiative partnership between Colonial Williamsburg and William & Mary, it will research, document, and disseminate the history and legacy of the Williamsburg Bray School. This will include transcription, research, conference participation, community and descendent engagement, and the Bray School book project. This project is designed to bring the school’s story to life through research and community reflection.
“By combining the preservation expertise of Colonial Williamsburg with the academic scholarship of William & Mary, we are able to achieve far more with this project than either of us could achieve alone,” said Maureen Elgersman Lee, director of the William & Mary Bray School Lab. “Moving the Bray School building to its new permanent site means we are one step closer to our goal of transforming traditional accounts of America’s history into a multi-layered story that centers Black legacy at the heart of U.S. democracy.”
About Williamsburg Bray School
The Williamsburg Bray School began in the Bray-Digges House in 1760. It’s one of the earliest institutions dedicated to Black education in North America. The Bray-Digges House was a 17-by-33-foot tenement building. Over its 14-year operation, about 400 students from the ages of 3–10 were taught there by Ann Wager, the only teacher at the school.
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