Honoring Black History

Researchers identify historic structure dedicated to education of Black children

Virginia News
Bray-Digges House Archival Image

Front elevation of the Dudley Digges House in its original location on Prince George Street, Williamsburg, Virginia. Photo by Earl Gregg Swem, 1921. (Photo: Special Collections, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. (WRIC) — Researchers have identified the structure of an 18th-century institution called the Williamsburg Bray School, which was used to the educate enslaved and free Black children.

Located on the William & Mary campus, the school is believed to be the oldest extant building in the U.S. dedicated to the education of Black children.

According to a release, the university and Colonial Williamsburg are now working together to ensure current and future generations learn about its complex history.

“It is hard to overstate the importance of this discovery, of the robust history that will be uncovered through this partnership between William & Mary and Colonial Williamsburg,” university President Katherine A. Rowe said. “So much of our history as a nation has gone unrecorded – the history of African Americans, their oppression, and resistance. By studying the legacy of the Bray School students, we will uncover and illuminate some of the most important impacts of education in the story of America.”

The Bray-Digges House will be relocated to Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area, where it will become the 89th original structure restored by the foundation. According to a release, discovery of the structure has also led to the establishment of the Williamsburg Bray School Initiative, a joint venture of the university and foundation to use the site as a focal point for research, scholarship and dialogue regarding the story of race, religion, and education in Williamsburg and in America.

Colonial Williamsburg President and CEO Cliff Fleet, Executive Director of Architectural Preservation Matt Webster, and Vice President for Museums, Preservation and Historic Resources Ron Hurst discuss framing of the Bray-Digges House in 2020. (Photo: Colonial Williamsburg)

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is scheduled to join the Williamsburg community for a special event at 5 p.m. Thursday commemorating the history of the Bray School, its rediscovery, and plans for site and interpretation. The event can be livestreamed here.

According to a release, Colonial Williamsburg’s initial work to restore and interpret the Bray School’s historic structure is possible in part thanks to a grant of $400,000 from the Gladys and Franklin Clark Foundation. The grant will allow Colonial Williamsburg to relocate the structure to the Historic Area, and additional funds will be raised to complete the restoration and interpretive work.

“Colonial Williamsburg and William & Mary’s partnership to research, restore and interpret the original structure of the Bray School is critical to our ongoing work to uncover our common past and expand our understanding of America’s founding,” Colonial Williamsburg President and CEO Cliff Fleet said. “We’re very grateful to the Clark Foundation, whose generous support makes this effort possible. We invite guests, the community and the nation to join us as we continue to pursue and present a more complete story of all who lived in Williamsburg during the Revolutionary era.”

Officials say the road to rediscovery of the historic building first began with Terry Meyers, Chancellor Professor of English, Emeritus, at William & Mary. He was reading a memoir by a local resident when he came across a reference to an 18th-century cottage that in 1930 had been moved down Prince George Street from the corner of Prince George and North Boundary streets. He visited Colonial Williamsburg’s John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, where there was a file on the building.

“From that, I was able to go back and look at what is now 524 Prince George St.,” Meyers said. “And I realized that if you look at that structure and erase the two additions on the right and the left and change the roofline from a Dutch colonial roof to a proper cottage roof, you actually do have an 18th-century cottage.”

Researchers led by Matt Webster, Colonial Williamsburg’s executive director of architectural preservation and research, discovered the reconfigured roof line that Meyers had noticed and a window sash that dates to the original construction date.

“Our analysis of the structure’s oldest elements conclusively places the timber’s harvest between the winter of 1759-60 and the spring of 1760, with the establishment of the Williamsburg Bray School in 1760,” Webster said. “That, combined with existing evidence of the Bray School’s historical location on Prince George Street, makes a compelling case that this is the original structure, and the building still has a great deal more to teach us.”

Meyers found that the Bray School operated in the Digges building from its 1760 founding until 1765, when the school was moved, possibly out to Capitol Landing Road.

According to a release, the timeframe for relocation of the Bray-Digges building is yet to be determined, and Colonial Williamsburg and William & Mary are considering a number of potential sites.

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