Please wait...

A Teaching Mission

Williamsburg was an incubator for teaching African Americans in the 18th century

By Paul Aron


Williamsburg seems an unlikely birthplace of African American education. It was, after all, a Colony and then a commonwealth that depended on slavery. Most owners considered the enslaved incapable of learning much, or they feared that an educated slave was more likely to find a way to escape. Besides, though the wealthy had tutors, many white children in Colonial Virginia did not attend schools at all or got only one to three years of basic instruction.

Yet between 1760 and 1774, a “Bray School” for African Americans operated in Williamsburg. Thomas Bray, a British clergyman, was no champion of racial equality, but he did believe black souls should be saved. After Bray’s death in 1729 or 1730, an organization known as “the Associates of Dr. Bray” took as part of its mission educating black children.

It was Benjamin Franklin, himself a member of the Associates, who suggested Williamsburg would be a good site for a school. Franklin recommended the Associates get in touch with William Hunter, the printer of The Virginia Gazette, and Thomas Dawson, the rector of Bruton Parish and the president of the College of William & Mary. Hunter and Dawson took on the tasks of opening and operating the school. Later, Robert Carter Nicholas, the treasurer of the Colony, oversaw the school.

True to Bray’s legacy, the school focused on teaching Christian principles. A set of rules drawn up in 1762 instructed the teacher, Ann Wager, “to make it her principal care to teach them to read the Bible” and “to instruct them in the principles of the Christian Religion.” She also ought to teach them that “Christians are commanded to be faithful and obedient to their masters.”

But the rules also called for secular education: “She shall teach her scholars the true spelling of words … and bring them to pronounce and read distinctly.”

The school faced numerous problems. Some slave owners treated it as a nursery, removing young slaves as soon as they were old enough or strong enough to work — or simply whenever they needed them to work. There were no funds for a separate schoolhouse, as there was for William & Mary’s Brafferton School for Indians, and the local trustees apparently rented a variety of spaces. When Wager died in 1774, the administrators were unable to find a replacement and the school closed.

However, for 14 years, the Bray school did provide some academic training for African Americans, both free and enslaved. Nicholas concluded those who stayed long enough were able “to read pretty well.” Enrollment was generally around 30, and approximately 400 students attended over the years. Many of those undoubtedly passed on what they learned to others who didn’t attend.

Tavern-keeper Jane Vobe enrolled several slave children in the school. It’s possible, though there’s no direct evidence of this, that one of those children was Gowan Pamphlet, who later founded a black Baptist church in Williamsburg — eventually called First Baptist Church.

Some students who learned to read used their knowledge just as slave owners feared — to seek their freedom. Isaac Bee attended the school as a child and later ran away. In 1774, his owner, Lewis Burwell, took out an ad in The Virginia Gazette warning that Bee could read. Burwell wasn’t sure whether Bee could also write, but he noted he “may easily get someone to forge a pass for him.”

So was Williamsburg the birthplace of African American education?

That claim would be a stretch, especially since Williamsburg’s was not the first of the Bray schools. One opened in Philadelphia in 1758, almost two years before here.

Yet there is evidence of educating African Americans in Williamsburg before any Bray school opened. As early as 1699, the Rev. James Blair, rector of Bruton Parish and president of William & Mary, circulated “A proposition for encouraging the Christian education of Indian, Negro, and mulatto children.” In 1743, William Dawson, Thomas’s brother and predecessor as president of William & Mary, wrote to England asking for a copy of school rules “which, with some little alteration, will suit a Negro school in our metropolis.” In 1750, Dawson mentioned in another letter that there were three Negro schools in his parish. In 1754, Thomas Dawson suggested that “schools for educating of poor children and Negroes might be recommended and encouraged.” And William Dawson himself taught blacks and Indians, as well as white indentured servants and William & Mary students. Dawson did not teach them all in the same classroom but it was nonetheless a striking mingling of races and classes.

Terry Meyers, an English professor at William & Mary and an expert on the college’s relationship with enslaved people, has argued that Franklin recommended Williamsburg for a Bray school because the masters and the college were responsible and experienced as clerics for the religious education of local blacks. Meyers notes that the Associates originally got in touch with Thomas Dawson specifically because he was president of William & Mary. They didn’t realize he was also rector at Bruton Parish and in fact thought that was a different person.

Says Meyers: “William & Mary appears to be the first college or university in America to concern itself as an institution (through the support of its presidents and faculty and through expending its resources) with the education of blacks, free and enslaved.”

Meyers stresses the irony of his claim, given William & Mary’s long history of defending slavery before the Civil War and defending segregation after the war. Yet, Meyers points out, under the influence of the Enlightenment, William & Mary was actually in the forefront of skepticism about slavery. And that may very well have played a role in Franklin’s recommendation and the Associates’ decision to open a Bray school here.

Moreover, well before Franklin’s recommendation, enslaved people recognized the connections between education and freedom. In 1723, weeks after word reached Virginia that the Church of England appointed a new bishop of London, anonymous slaves in Virginia wrote him asking his help to release them from “this cruel bondage.” The anonymous slaves asked the bishop, tellingly, to find a way to send their children to school for religious instruction.