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; B01

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.

Documents suggest that the structure was built as early as 1712. It was quarantined for smallpox in 1748. And in 1760, Digges rented it out to an English charity, the Associates of Dr. Bray.

It was Franklin, future Founding Father, who proposed Williamsburg as one of three Colonial sites for the "Instruction of Negro Children." Franklin had visited Williamsburg in 1756. In a soon-to-be-published article in the journal Anglican and Episcopal History, Meyers argues that Franklin chose William and Mary after learning firsthand that the college had a history of educating black children.

As early as 1740, a professor named William Dawson was hitting up the bishop of London for "a collection of religious books to be approved of, by your Lordship, for the benefit of the Negroes & the Poor of this Colony." Dawson would become college president. Minutes of a 1760 meeting show Franklin recommending Dawson by name to help lead the school.

What, then, became of the Bray School?

Records show it endured until the death of the schoolmistress, Anne Wager, in 1774. Archival photographs from the 19th century show the former schoolhouse, a two-story, four-room wooden cottage, framed by a pair of chimneys. Wager taught as many as 30 students at a time, mostly slaves, some free. Two, named Adam and Fanny, were owned by the college.

The children were taught to read and write, and the girls to knit and sew. School rules instructed Wager to lead the students "in a decent & orderly Manner to Church."

Documents suggest that the Digges house had fallen into disrepair by 1801. It was later converted to a dormitory, greatly expanded and moved to a new address on Prince George Street. It served as faculty housing; a philosophy professor hanged herself there in the 1970s.

By the time Meyers found the structure in 2004, its Colonial origins were mostly hidden beneath a jumble of misplaced windows and mismatched doors. Someone told him that the building was on a list for demolition.

"This is 18th century, we're pretty sure of that," Meyers said, patting an oak banister inside the dwelling on a recent day. "And that's pretty much all."

The chimneys are still there, along with an old, Hobbit-sized door, half hidden behind a poster. The building houses ROTC training rooms. Some who have spent the night there say it is haunted.

The professor's narrative suggests that it is the nation's oldest standing building used for black education. Meyers thinks the second-oldest is the former First African Baptist Church of Boston, built in 1806.

His curiosity helped spawn a campuswide initiative, one of the more far-reaching efforts of its sort in academia. It is called the Lemon Project, after a slave named Lemon who was owned by the college but who, paradoxically, also sold produce to the institution.

A 2009 resolution from the college's governing board recognizes that William and Mary "owned and exploited slave labor from its founding to the Civil War" and urges a long-term commitment "to better understand, chronicle, and preserve the history of blacks" at the college.

Meyers, who has needled the college about its slave-holding past, said the Lemon Project puts it "way out ahead of a lot of Southern schools."

Collegiate regret

Colleges have mostly avoided slavery in exploring their own histories for fear of sparking protests and angering alumni.

In 2007, following the lead of the legislature, the governing board of the University of Virginia broke decades of silence by issuing a resolution of "particular regret" for its use of slave labor, the first collegiate board in the nation to make such a statement.

University of Maryland President C.D. "Dan" Mote Jr. has refused to tender an apology, but he commissioned a 2009 report that showed that a majority of the original university trustees owned slaves.

Among Williamsburg historians, no one seriously doubts the authenticity of Meyers's claim.

"It sounds as though this is probably the [Bray School] property," said Edward Chappell, director of architectural and archaeological research at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. History, he said, is "often a little messy."

But the professor has no absolute proof.

There is consensus, at least, that some testing should be done to determine the age of the structure. Meyers would like to see the ground excavated at the original Digges address.

Provost Michael Halleran said he is "deeply impressed with what Terry has come up with" and "would love it to be true."

Robert Engs, a retired University of Pennsylvania historian who has advised the college on how to address slavery, said the identity of the structure matters less than the story behind it.

"What's impressive was that the people who created this school believed that African Americans had immortal souls, just like white people," Engs said, "and that they needed salvation."

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