Bray School moves to a new Colonial Williamsburg location to begin restoration in earnest
Flanked by forklifts and hi-visibility construction vests, a two-story clapboard-clad house inched along Prince George Street on William & Mary’s campus toward its new home across from the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg.
The house – which is the historic Bray School – is taking up residence a half-mile away along Francis Street. There, it will be restored and incorporated into the educational fabric of Colonial Williamsburg as part of a multi-year project between the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and William & Mary.
Colonial Williamsburg Foundation President Cliff Fleet spoke at the ceremony.
“It was a remarkable find that was in front of us every day,” he said
It’s thought to be the oldest historic building in the country once used to educate free and enslaved Black children.
Janice Canaday is a longtime Colonial Williamsburg employee and lifelong Williamsburg resident who can trace her lineage to Bray School students.
“There were folks in this town who were not just property, they were real living human beings who thought, who aspired, who dreamed, who had value, who loved, who had joy,” she said. “And there were people who held on and endured … so that I could become and be in this space and tell their story.”
RETELLING WILLIAMSBURG HISTORY
William & Mary discovered the identity of the small white house on campus in 2021 after decades of archaeological research.
By that point, the structure had moved, added more space and been repeatedly repainted, making it hard to tell without the research what its purpose was in the mid-1700s when it was built.
Benjamin Franklin suggested the establishment of the Bray School during a visit to Williamsburg in 1756. The school’s mission was to convert enslaved Black people to Christianity and convince them slavery was “divinely ordained.”
Educating Black students at the time was considered dangerous because white owners worried they would learn to write and forge passes that allowed them to travel easily or escape.
By the 19th century, Virginia essentially banned enslaved people from learning.
The Bray School initiative is happening alongside the college’s Lemon Project, a collection of efforts to research and memorialize the enslaved people who built and sustained the college.
It’s named for an enslaved Black man, Lemon, who the college owned.
Part of the project will include the establishment of a “physical presence on campus,” like a memorial to the enslaved people who labored at the school.
“It's a powerful thing to think about the fact that none of what we appreciate … and hold in great value would be possible without us, without our footprint,” Canaday said.
“This presents an incredible opportunity to amplify the stories of these children, to amplify the voices of their descendants and to really write a more inclusive history that places these children’s stories at the center,” said Maureen Elgersman Lee, director at the Bray School Lab at William & Mary.