William and Mary may be home to oldest standing schoolhouse for black children

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 23, 2010

WILLIAMSBURG -- At a time when some venerable Southern colleges are finally acknowledging and apologizing for their past ties to slavery, an inquisitive scholar at the College of William and Mary thinks he has made a more inspiring find: the nation's oldest surviving schoolhouse for African American children.

Terry Meyers, an English professor with a penchant for local history, suggests that the College of William and Mary was instrumental in opening a school in 1760 -- at the urging of Benjamin Franklin, no less -- and so became the first college in America involved in the education of black students.

The story of the Williamsburg Bray School evokes a different Virginia than the one known as a political and ideological epicenter of slavery. It is the Virginia that was an outpost of the European Enlightenment and host to an intellectual movement that would spawn the Declaration of Independence, with the nascent college at the fore.

"To me, the Bray School stands out as a bright spot in an otherwise dark narrative," Meyers said.

Alfred Brophy, a law professor at the University of North Carolina who studies antebellum academia, terms Meyers's potential discovery "incredibly positive": a Colonial school for free and enslaved blacks, initiated by a British philanthropy and established by a benevolent Colonial college, for the religious education of "heathens," with the ultimate goal of saving their immortal souls.

That image might counterbalance an otherwise ugly history of slavery at William and Mary. The college was funded with taxes on tobacco harvested by slaves. The college owned slaves, as did some faculty members and even a few students. Slave labor built core campus buildings, maintained the grounds and fed the residents. Thomas Roderick Dew, the college president in the 1830s and 1840s, "may be the single most important pro-slavery thinker this country ever produced," Brophy said.

It would also seem to run counter to later sentiments in Virginia and other Southern states, which explicitly forbade teaching slaves to read or write. Virginia's revised code of 1819 deemed "any assemblages of slaves . . . at any school or schools for teaching them reading or writing" an unlawful assembly and gave authorities the power to punish those assembled with as many as 20 lashes.

The Bray School is an improbable find, if indeed it has been found: a forgotten Colonial structure in a town that is a living monument to Colonial America, a place historians have picked clean.

Meyers, 65, is an English scholar. Therein, perhaps, lies his strength: Meyers loves words, and he found details in Colonial documents that other scholars had missed.

"I do read texts closely," he said in his snug campus office on a recent morning.

Meyers thought he knew most of the 88 original Colonial structures that are Williamsburg's crown jewels. Six years ago, he became intrigued at the mention, in a book of town lore, of another 18th-century home that had apparently gone missing. It had belonged to a Dudley Digges and sat at a corner across from the college campus.

The wrong Digges

Meyers began researching Digges. He decided that historians had lost track of the house in part because they had linked it to the wrong Digges, a Yorktown patriot. Meyers found another Dudley Digges, an uncle of the more famous patriot, who had bought a home in Williamsburg in 1763.

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