WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — A building believed to be the oldest surviving school for black children in the US was loaded onto a flatbed truck and moved half a mile Friday to Colonial Williamsburg, a Virginia museum that continues to expand its emphasis on African American history. .

The original structure, built 25 years before the American Revolution, stood near the William & Mary College campus. The pinewood building housed up to 30 students at a time, some of them free black children studying alongside those who were enslaved.

Hundreds of people lined the streets to celebrate their slow-speed journey into the heart of the living history museum, which tells the story of Virginia’s colonial capital through interpreters and restored buildings.

For both historians and descendants, the Bray School contradicts the belief that all enslaved Americans were uneducated. But the school’s faith-based curriculum, created by an English charity, also justified slavery and encouraged students to accept their destiny as God’s plan.

“Religion was at the heart of the school, and it was not an abolition gospel,” said Maureen Elgersman Lee, lab director at William & Mary’s Bray School.

“There was this need to proselytize and bring salvation without doing anything to destabilize the institution of slavery,” Lee said. “Save the soul, but continue to enslave the body. It was the here versus the hereafter.”

It was a brand of duplicity that easily fit into the greatest contradictions of the founding of the country, when the Democracy that was being forged explicitly denied rights and freedoms to many of its inhabitants.

‘A remarkable story of survival’

Williamsburg is less than 10 miles from Jamestown, which England established in 1607. Enslaved Africans were supplied to the colony for work only a dozen years later. A century and a half after that, blacks, most of them still enslaved, made up just over half of Williamsburg’s 2,000 people.

Bray School was established in 1760. on the recommendation of Benjamin Franklin, president of a London-based Anglican charity named after the philanthropist Reverend Thomas Bray. The charity also established schools in other cities, including New York and Philadelphia.

The curriculum ranged from spelling to the Book of Common Prayer. But even within the paternalistic framework of the schools, education could still be empowering, perhaps even subversive.

«I was going through a facsimile of one of the books, and there are words like ‘freedom,'» said Lee, the lab’s director. “What did learning those words do to expand these children’s sense of self? His sense of the world?

Isaac Bee, student at Bray School, I would run away as an adult of a slave owner named Lewis Burwell. An advertisement Burwell placed in The Virginia Gazette in 1774 offered a cash reward for his return and warned that Bee could read.

the white master, a widow named Ann Wagerhe lived upstairs at the school and taught some 300 to 400 students whose ages ranged from 3 to 10 years, according to surviving records.

Williamsburg Bray School operated until 1774; only Philadelphia reopened after the Revolutionary War. The structure served as a private home for many years before being incorporated into the William & Mary campus.

The old school was eventually moved from its original location to make way for a dormitory. The original structure was 1.5 stories, with a small floor above. It was expanded over the years to include two full stories and was last used as an office for ROTC, the college program that prepares military officers.

A building believed to be the oldest school for black children in the US moves slowly down a street in Williamsburg, Virginia on February 10, 2023.Ben Finley/AP

Historians believed they had identified the original Bray School building, but this was not confirmed until 2021, using dendrochronology, a scientific method that examines tree rings in timber to determine the timber’s harvest date.

“This is a remarkable story of survival,” said Matthew Webster, Colonial Williamsburg’s executive director of architectural conservation and research. «And for us, it’s very important to bring it back (to its original state) and tell the full and true story.»

Rewriting of incomplete historical narratives

The Bray School was exceptional: Although Virginia waited until the 1800s to impose laws against literacy, white leaders in much of colonial America forbade educating enslaved people, fearing that literacy would further their freedom. South Carolina criminalized teaching slaves to write English in 1740.

Inside the school, the original post at the bottom of the walnut staircase still stands, its square top rounded and chipped from centuries of use, Webster said, adding that it’s a «very powerful piece for a lot of people.»

For Tonia Merideth, an oral historian at the Bray School Lab, the building aroused many emotions on her first visit. It was material proof against the narrative that her ancestors were illiterate and foolish.

“Everything I learned about my ancestors was wrong,” he said. “They could learn. they learned. They could.»

Merideth added: «Regardless of the intentions of the school, the children were still receiving that education and possibly serving it for their own good and helping out in their community.»

Merideth can trace her roots back to the Armistead family, who enslaved people in the Williamsburg area and are known to have sent at least one boy, named Locust, to the Bray School. But only three years of student lists have survived.

The Bray School move is part of Colonial Williamsburg’s ongoing reckoning over its past narrative of black history and the nation’s origin story. The museum was founded in 1926 but did not tell black stories until 1979.

In 2021, he discovered the brick foundation of one of the oldest black churches in the country. Last year, archaeologists began excavating graves at the site.

The new Bray School location is right next door.

“We will go back and get that school and get that legacy,” Merideth said. “And we are bringing it back to the historic area.”